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Scientists create water splitter that runs on a single AAA battery

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August 25, 2014

The Stanford University water splitter could save hydrogen producers billions of dollars (...

The Stanford University water splitter could save hydrogen producers billions of dollars (Photo: Mark Shwartz)

A new emissions-free device created by scientists at Stanford University uses an ordinary 1.5-volt battery to split water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature, potentially providing a low-cost method to power fuel cells in zero-emissions vehicles and buildings.

The water splitter is made from the relatively cheap and abundant metals nickel and iron. It works by sending an electric current from a single-cell AAA battery through two electrodes.

"This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low," chemistry professor and lead researcher Hongjie Dai says. "It's quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals like platinum or iridium to achieve that voltage."

The technology has huge potential as a source for powering hydrogen fuel cells, long held as a likely successor to gasoline. Unlike gasoline combustion, which emits large quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, fuel cells combine stored hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, leaving only water as a byproduct.

Fuel cell vehicles have been around since the 1960s, albeit mostly as research projects and demonstration cars and buses. But we may soon see them in commercial production, with Toyota and Honda both committed to selling fuel cell cars in 2015 and Hyundai already leasing fuel cell vehicles in Southern California.

Fuel cell vehicles have been widely criticized for their high cost, the lack of infrastructure around their fuel delivery, and their low energy efficiency after accounting for the effort it takes to produce compressed hydrogen (often involving large industrial plants that use an energy-intensive process that combines steam and natural gas).

But the new Stanford research, which latches onto a previously unknown method for splitting water, could help account for all these issues.

"It's been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability," Dai explains. "When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise."

The nickel-metal/nickel-oxide catalyst, discovered by Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, also requires significantly lower voltages to split water when compared to pure nickel or pure nickel oxide. This new technique is not quite ready for commercial production, though.

"The electrodes are fairly stable, but they do slowly decay over time," Gong says. "The current device would probably run for days, but weeks or months would be preferable. That goal is achievable based on my most recent results."

The next step is to improve that decay rate and to test a version that runs on electricity produced by solar energy instead of the AAA battery.

The researchers believe that their water splitter could save hydrogen producers billions of dollars, and the electrolytic device could be used to make chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide as well as hydrogen fuel cells.

A paper published in the journal Nature Communications describes the research in more detail.

You can see Dai himself demonstrating the device in the video below.

Source: Stanford University

About the Author
Richard Moss Richard is a freelance writer and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He’s contributed to Ars Technica, Edge Magazine, Polygon, and many other publications. When not writing or trying to read the entire internet, you’ll likely find him dancing, playing games, dabbling in creative stuff, or learning about whatever catches his eye.   All articles by Richard Moss
30 Comments

Are you kidding me? This is straight out of a grade-school science book.

slam_to
25th August, 2014 @ 07:13 am PDT

@slam_to: me too, but not at this voltage, not at this efficiency and not with non-precious metal electrodes.

Joris van den Heuvel
25th August, 2014 @ 09:27 am PDT

I created an account just to say that this is ridiculous. I did this when I was 13-14. Is this what they spend their time on? Elementary school science fair level.

GabrielMarshman
25th August, 2014 @ 09:30 am PDT

So what! I this as a kid over fifty years ago--this must a stupid April Fool's joke. That electrolysis can be done is not the issue--you always have to put more energy into the system to isolate the hydrogen atoms than can be obtained from burning them. This is just. Dumb.

Hal Guernsey
25th August, 2014 @ 12:16 pm PDT

@slam_to, @GabrielMarshman

So... You guys had access to nickle oxide heterostructures on the sides of carbon nanotubes in highschool, set up in a previously unknown configuration that nearly bypasses Ostwald ripening?... That's pretty freaking impressive for an elementary school science fair.

Strings
25th August, 2014 @ 12:21 pm PDT

Doesn't anyone read the article anymore before commenting? This is nothing short of ground breaking. A clean way of splitting water, with almost no loss of energy and no need for precious metals, at a voltage of that of solar panels, so it doesn't require inverters. I am by no means an expert, but I think that's a significant breakthrough.

Joris van den Heuvel
25th August, 2014 @ 02:07 pm PDT

The actual news is that these Stanford researchers have discovered an economical electrode material which MAY be useful for large scale electrolysis production of hydrogen.

However, the principle barriers for hydrogen fuel cell use are hydrogen storage and distribution, not electrolysis electrode cost & efficiency.

In terms of energy efficiency, hydrogen produced by electrolysis requires more energy to produce than the hydrogen fuel yields. Efficiency is further lost during the fuel cell's conversion of hydrogen into electricity.

Unless the electricity powering the electrolysis is produced by "green" & "sustainable" means, the net effect on the environment is arguably worse than that of battery-powered cars recharged on the existing coal & gas fired power grid.

If these new electrodes can be scaled to industrial use, then this is a significant discovery. However, it is not a game changer because it doesn't solve the problems of "green" electricity for electrolysis and hydrogen storage & distribution.

Jim Vanus
25th August, 2014 @ 02:22 pm PDT

This is SOOOOO cool.... We take electricity from a Duracell AAA.. we split water with it... we feed the gas into a fuel-cell and what do you know... we get electricity out the back of it... SUWEEEEEEEEET!

Michiel Mitchell
25th August, 2014 @ 02:43 pm PDT

Jim Vanus...exactly. You cannot get more energy out of a system than that of what you put into it.

"Eureka! After the manufacturing process to procure raw materials (or even recycled) and refine them into usable products and using all the energy there required....we've produced a few bubbles storing a fraction of the energy required in the process to produce them! Praise Gore!"

"Green! Green! Buy! Buy!"

JweenyPwee
25th August, 2014 @ 06:15 pm PDT

As was already mentioned above, using a 1.5 volt battery for electrolysis is basic middle school science, but only if the water being split has impurities such as salt to allow it to conduct electricity. This article, and the linked one for Stanford, do not mention the water having salt in it. If this is the case and the water is pure, then this is a significant discovery, as electrolysis of pure water requires much higher voltages or expensive catalysts like platinum.

Eugarps71
25th August, 2014 @ 06:22 pm PDT

The storage worry will be the hardest to solve, espcially for any sort of home apparaus (fuel cell in car use).

Another worry is all that 'free' oxygen being vented somewhere - a lot of garages in a suburb making hydrogen, an inversion layer trapping the oxygen, if the right concentration builds up and some unfortunate steps outside for a ciggie, BOOM!

Would make for an interesting insurance claim ..

The Skud
25th August, 2014 @ 07:45 pm PDT

@Jim Vans & @JweeeyPwee

This technology would allow petrol stations to put solar cells on top of the forecourt, and produce hydrogen on site in a large enough quantity. So this would solve lots of problems.

First problem it would solve is transport of hydrogen. Second it would solve is the burden electric cars are placing on the electricty networks which are getting close to capacity. Third problem it would solve is waste products. You go from a lot of pollution to water and some decayed nickel.

It's pretty great break through. It means in the future you could potentially run your car from a solar panel at home, and sure energy from the sun is wasted, but its free energy that is wasted regardless of what you do anyway so its win win. Its not like we are polluting during the loss of energy in the conversion. For example burning 10grams of coal thats capable of producing 15 wats, and changing it into 5 wats of hydrogen, causing 10wats of pollution. We are taking the suns energy and witout pollution converting water into hydrogen in an efficient way. So although we want to keep the loss to a minimum, its not really relevant to the "green" discussion, as getting the loss lower just makes it greener.

fenshwey
25th August, 2014 @ 09:02 pm PDT

Nickel has been used as electrode material in large industrial electrolizers since decades of years.

There are many known technologies to improve ("activate") nickel electrode surface in alkali electrolizers, thus turning it into some sort of catalizer.

Many of them proved to be economical, but all of them suffer from some aging effect.

So this "invention" has nothing new in it.

-

The efficiency of electrolizers can be increased in any electrolizer right now, by simply decreasing current density.

However, the efficiency of the electrolysis is not a critical parameter, as they always use low-cost electricity for it.

Thus, at the present state of the art, a relatively high current density with a relatively low (60-70%) efficiency proved to be the economical optimum.

Rumata
26th August, 2014 @ 02:37 am PDT

Fenshwey said "So although we want to keep the loss to a minimum, its not really relevant to the "green" discussion, as getting the loss lower just makes it greener. "

In your scenario (generating hydrogen at point of use), there is another loss of efficiency as the hydrogen must be converted into a usable form, either by compressing it or combining it with a chemical in the fuel cell. It would be interesting to run the numbers on your scenario.

A less complex design would simply store the solar-generated electricity directly to batteries, such as are already powering the Tesla car. Even if this means storing the daytime-generated electricity in a battery pack separate from the car for later transfer to the car, this system would be much easier to maintain than that required to electrolytically produce & convert hydrogen. Even with the extra battery pack, advances in battery technology will likely soon make the simpler scenario economically & technologically feasible.

An even simpler scenario would be replacing the fossil fuel powered plants in the existing grid with a technology that produces cheap, abundant power. Current production EV's (e.g., Nissan Leaf) already have enough range to be practical in that scenario.

Let's see where the hydrogen fuel cell technology goes. Other technologies look to be viable sooner, but I'm willing to be wrong.

Jim Vanus
26th August, 2014 @ 08:53 am PDT

Wonderful. . ? I have not yet read Ming Gong paper but this, on the surface, does not appear to impressive. We'll see if this makes any jump to production, I doubt it. Nano-lattice production is still expensive and is even mention in the article as well. Likely at least 5 years out, just like the most of the recent great battery break throughs.

How about someone try using electro-magnetic harmonics in splitting water molecule as Stanley Myer's explained (only don't get yourself killed).

Or better yet use hydrogen fusion models originally discovered by Tandberg back in the 20's & then later rediscovered by Fleischmann & Pons (explained further by Znidarsic mathematical model & proven to work by LENR & SPAWAR), just make sure you don't get discredited by your institution or bogus work before you can publish.

Matt Fletcher
26th August, 2014 @ 10:05 am PDT

Isaac Newton did not know what electricity is.

Einstein did not know what a fractal is.

Most readers do not know what the 18 different structures for water are.

Here is an article that will get the little grey cells agitated most effectively:

Hydrolysis by Fractal Implosion:

"Releasing Hydrogen from water- more efficiently-

using the new precise equation for the newly discovered accurate 'music' (wavelength and frequency harmonic series)

of hydrogen."

http://www.fractalfield.com/hydrogen/

Darren Walker
26th August, 2014 @ 11:15 am PDT

so, what is the difference between this new discovery and an HHO generator (Like the one linked)? they both do the same thing, except one needs storage abilities, and the other uses the energy as needed.

http://www.hydrogen-first-aid.com/index.html

jman7427
26th August, 2014 @ 12:33 pm PDT

Fenshwey, efficiency does matter because it affects the viability of the energy system. Even with solar power systems, energy must be invested into the system.

This is the problem with hydrogen-powered energy systems or any other: Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)

From "The Catch-22 of Energy Storage" by John Morgan (http://bravenewclimate.com/2014/08/22/catch-22-of-energy-storage/):

"Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power. Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization."

"The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al. in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it."

This well-referenced article goes on to state that our current level of civilization requires from its energy systems an EROEI of about 14:1.

EROEI indicates the viability of an energy system. It's OK to pilot and perfect a new energy system, but no system should go into production until it has a viable EROEI.

Jim Vanus
26th August, 2014 @ 01:47 pm PDT

I have a theory of how to liberate oxygen and hydrogen from water but on a grander scale however the expense of the experiment that I would like to perform prohibits me from doing so. It involves vortexing water at a very high rate and suspending copper powder in the water. There is more to this but I will not divulge it unless it was included in a contract

Cyndysub
26th August, 2014 @ 02:43 pm PDT

i use stainless steel 'bi-fillar' pancake coils stacked vertically,and separated (insulated) from one another by perforated cpvc 'discs'. i get all i need(using stainless steel cables)from a 12volt mopeds' battery and electrical system to run my scooter on the hydrogen and oxygen generated alone! what's so 'hot' about 'electrodes'?

redjeff53
26th August, 2014 @ 04:11 pm PDT

I may be just naive but in the end its a chemical battery vs a chemical battery powered by hydrogen (through electricity) debate. Unless a third energy storage system is discovered and competitive that does not involve fossil fuels, we will stick with these two ideas.

How the energy is produced is the same for both is irrelevant because both require electricity. Coal, nuclear, solar, etc. It simply comes down to two central ideas. First which way is cheaper to store per kilowatt hour. Second, how fast can the battery vs "fuel cell(hydrogen battery" be charged.

As far as I understand now batteries win on number 1 and lose on number 2. But battery science "seems" according to many articles I've read soon be able to overcome 2 in the next 10 to 20 years.

I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss the numbers. Right now major corporations filled with smart people disagree on this.

Of course things like safety and greenness of making and storing the hydrogen and battery components must come in to discussion too but I think unless there is a major difference the first two issues will decide this fight.

As for how remarkable this guys "invention" is left for the people he really has to pitch the economics too.

I am happy their are two sides, unlike when ICEs started being produced, to try and figure out the best method to store and recharge electricity to run cars. I am also glad I dont have to figure it out. Economics will do it for me. Let the best way win.

Robert Chandler
26th August, 2014 @ 04:35 pm PDT

The breakthrough is in greatly reducing the current required to break the water with a non-precious metal electrodes.

However they have to increase the electrode life if they want to be more cost effective than the precious metal electrodes. if it cost a quarter as much it still has to last a quarter as long to be equally cost effective.

Slowburn
27th August, 2014 @ 01:11 am PDT

I know i'm a little late to this story , but why is this such a big deal ? last winter being very bored , and being a tinkerer in my spare time , i made an hho generator that ran off of a 9 volt battery , and threw a voltage

amplifier . it was producing about 1 liters of hho gas a minute , when i used a 1.5 volt battery it was putting out about .2 liters a minute .

the gas burned very clean , i was using tap water that i would boil and collect the steam as to remove some of the impurities , the batteries would last about 2 hours or so , before they would drop low enough that i would want to recharge them . So i guess i'm missing why this is such a breakthrough , hope someone can help me out understanding why ....

xiix5466
1st September, 2014 @ 10:55 am PDT

These moronic stories sure bring out the perpetual motion kooks.

Andrew Goetsch
1st September, 2014 @ 06:30 pm PDT

It seems to me could be used as solar storage.

@Eugarps71 Having catalyst such as salt does NOT matter since we have oceans. Plus it is not used up so fresh water can be added.

Raven Bo
1st September, 2014 @ 07:09 pm PDT

I made a coffee warmer that used my tanks 24 volt system to split salt water into hydrogen and oxygen then afterword burned them to heat my coffee.

Joel Velasco
1st September, 2014 @ 08:40 pm PDT

But...

You won't get as much energy BACK from reacting the hydrogen (and oxygen) in a fuel cell as you put into it to make it into separate hydrogen and oxygen.

The cycle LOSES energy.

With modern battery storage technology, you might as well just use the battery to power your device directly.

Eugene Pharr
2nd September, 2014 @ 07:24 am PDT

It's a AAA cell, not a battery. Batteries have 2 or more cells. Thus a 9V is a battery but AAAA, AAA, A, C and D are all cells.

Put two or more of those cells in a holder and you have a battery.

At least the article didn't call it a single cell battery...

Gregg Eshelman
8th September, 2014 @ 02:42 pm PDT

The funny thing is, somebody made a breakthrough using Cobalt to split water... in 2011 ?

So precious metal electrodes haven’t been necessary for a while now.

William Carr
20th September, 2014 @ 07:37 am PDT

Wow really? I can produce hydrogen with out any battery at all and produce electricity while doing it. Magnesium in water makes hydrogen and you can make usable electricity at the same time. So does Sodium but it does it more violently than is acceptable.

How does this qualify as news?

Ed Wood
23rd September, 2014 @ 05:49 am PDT
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