New catalyst said to make electrolyzers 200 times more efficient
By Ben Coxworth
August 23, 2010
Although wave power is attracting a lot of attention as a renewable energy source, it is possible to generate power from still water. All you need is an electrolyzer, which separates water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, then feeds them into a fuel cell. Electrolyzers, however, require catalysts to get the process rolling. While hydrogen production catalysts aren’t much of a problem, the platinum catalysts used for oxygen production are expensive, don’t last very long, and the creation of them incorporates toxic chemicals. This Monday, however, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the development of a new oxygen production catalyst that is 200 times more efficient than platinum. The nickel-borate-based catalyst has been licensed to Sun Catalytix, which is hoping to be producing safe, super-efficient electrolyzers within two years.
The development of the catalyst was part of an MIT study into systems for making homes and businesses energy self-sufficient. Such systems would include rooftop solar panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners' electric cars. Surplus energy would go to the electrolyzer, enabling it to produce more energy from water. At night, when the solar panels were inactive, the electrolyzer’s separately-stored hydrogen and oxygen would be fed into a fuel cell. This would result not only in nighttime electricity, but would also produce clean drinking water as a by-product. According to MIT, such a system could produce clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when the sun wasn’t shining.
"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and solar cells must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system."
The whole thing sounds somewhat like a bigger version of Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies’ HYDROFILL desktop hydrogen station, which charges AA battery-like cartridges by extracting hydrogen from water.
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