Hydrogen Fuel Production Gets Big Boost From Cheap New Material



Hydrogen Fuel Production Gets Big Boost From Cheap New Material

While hydrogen fuel production — via the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight — has long been prominent in the public imagination, the reality is that the technology is still quite a ways off from being economical. That gap between the economical and the reality is narrowing though, as new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows.

Researchers there have succeeded in achieving a new record (with regard to oxide-based photoelectrode systems) solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 1.7% — while using relatively inexpensive new materials.

Sunny day

“In order to make commercially viable devices for solar fuel production, the material and the processing costs should be reduced significantly while achieving a high solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency,” states researcher Kyoung-Shin Choi, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

So, to address this, the researchers created solar cells from bismuth vanadate and used electrodeposition (think gold-plated jewelry) to boost “the compound’s surface area to a remarkable 32 square meters for each gram.”

“Without fancy equipment, high temperature or high pressure, we made a nanoporous semiconductor of very tiny particles that have a high surface area,” explains Choi. “More surface area means more contact area with water, and, therefore, more efficient water splitting.”


The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides more:

Bismuth vanadate needs a hand in speeding the reaction that produces fuel, and that’s where the paired catalysts come in. While there are many research groups working on the development of photoelectric semiconductors, and many working on the development of water-splitting catalysts, according to Choi, the semiconductor-catalyst junction gets relatively little attention.

Choi and Kim exploited a pair of cheap and somewhat flawed catalysts — iron oxide and nickel oxide — by stacking them on the bismuth vanadate to take advantage of their relative strengths.

“Since no one catalyst can make a good interface with both the semiconductor and the water that is our reactant, we choose to split that work into two parts,” Choi states. “The iron oxide makes a good junction with bismuth vanadate, and the nickel oxide makes a good catalytic interface with water. So we use them together.”

The dual-layer catalyst approach allows for the simultaneous optimization of the semiconductor-catalyst junction and also the catalyst-water junction.

“Combining this cheap catalyst duo with our nanoporous high surface area semiconductor electrode resulted in the construction of an inexpensive all oxide-based photoelectrode system with a record high efficiency,” Choi continues.

“Other researchers studying different types of semiconductors or different types of catalysts can start to use this approach to identify which combinations of materials can be even more efficient,” says Choi. “Which some engineering, the efficiency we achieved could be further improved very fast.”

The researchers are currently working to tweak their design further.

The new research was just published in the journal Science.

Image Credit: UW-Madison/Bryce Richter

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About the Author

James Ayre’s background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

  • albundy57

    Hey numbnuts – What is the ONE thing this planet has that almost does not exist anywhere else in the Galaxy as far as we know… H2O. Burning for fuel for our cars is WAAAAYYYYYY more stupid than burning old-azz dinosaurs. Sometimes I think Liberals REALLY want us all to die and go the way of the Cavement. Save the H20! Burn the Oil!

    • duh master

      When you burn Hydrogen you get water.

      • Duh Master

        On a side note the universe is filled with ice and water. It’s not rare at all. Liquid water on a planet’s surface is rare, but water and ice are abundant.

    • RealTeaMan

      Interesting to see someone so arrogant and ignorant call others names and tell them they are stupid. Intelligence has limits, but ignorance is boundless….

      FYI, the energy of the electrons used to split water atoms is stored. When the hydrogen is burned (combined again with oxygen) the energy is released again. In addition to heat, the by product of the reaction is…. water. Yes, burning something is combining a fuel with oxygen. If you burn a hydrocarbon (such as oil) you get water (hydrogen and oxygen) and carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen) which acts as a greenhouse gas, increasing the Earth’s surface temperature. If you burn hydrogen gas (H2) then you get 2 H2 + O2 –> 2 H20. Again, H20 is …water…and you have a balanced equation, so there are no other products. I don’t doubt the significance will be beyond you…

      On a related note, recenttly published studies have shown that only 4% of scientists are conservatives. Scientist have no explanation of why the percentage found in the study is so high.

  • Johnny Le

    conversion efficiency of 1.7%? What would be the ideal conversion rate for it to become economical?

  • David H

    How about a link to the article? Or the common courtesy of dating your article? Is this what we can expect from online journalism?

    • Jake

      Lol. There’s a link is in the middle of the article.

      • David H

        LOL. It doesn’t link to the purported article in Science. The last sentence states, “The new research was just published in the journal Science.” The only thing published in the most recent, 2/21/2014, issue of Science regarding Dr. Choi’s research was a schedule for an upcoming schedule for the Gordon Research Conferences taking place last this year, but no published research in any recent issue of Science by Dr. Choi.


    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      There’s a date in the URL — pretty obvious.

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