Public Release: 

Scientists produce H2 for fuel cells using an inexpensive catalyst under real-world conditions

One of the first stages of developing the new renewable energy source under an industrially relevant environment

University of Cambridge

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have produced hydrogen, H2, a renewable energy source, from water using an inexpensive catalyst under industrially relevant conditions (using pH neutral water, surrounded by atmospheric oxygen, O2, and at room temperature).

Lead author of the research, Dr Erwin Reisner, an EPSRC research fellow and head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said: "A H2 evolution catalyst which is active under elevated O2 levels is crucial if we are to develop an industrial water splitting process - a chemical reaction that separates the two elements which make up water. A real-world device will be exposed to atmospheric O2 and also produce O2 in situ as a result of water splitting."

Although H2 cannot be used as a 'direct' substitute for gasoline or ethanol, it can be used as a fuel in combination with fuel cells, which are already available in cars and buses. H2 is currently produced from fossil fuels and it produces the greenhouse gas CO2 as a by-product; it is therefore neither renewable nor clean. A green process such as sunlight-driven water splitting is therefore required to produce 'green and sustainable H2'.

One of the many problems that scientists face is finding an efficient and inexpensive catalyst that can function under real-world conditions: in water, under air and at room temperature. Currently, highly efficient catalysts such as the noble metal platinum are too expensive and cheaper alternatives are typically inefficient. Very little progress was made so far with homogeneous catalyst systems that work in water and atmospheric O2.

However, Cambridge researchers found that a simple catalyst containing cobalt, a relatively inexpensive and abundant metal, operates as an active catalyst in pH neutral water and under atmospheric O2.

Dr Reisner said: "Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve H2 efficiently in water and under aerobic conditions. However, such conditions are essential for use in developing green hydrogen as a future energy source under industrially relevant conditions.

"Our research has shown that inexpensive materials such as cobalt are suitable to fulfil this challenging requirement. Of course, many hurdles such as the rather poor stability of the catalyst remain to be addressed, but our finding provides a first step to produce 'green hydrogen' under relevant conditions."

The results show that the catalyst works under air and the researchers are now working on a solar water splitting device, where a fuel H2 and the by-product O2 are produced simultaneously.

Fezile Lakadamyali and Masaru Kato, co-authors of the study, add: "We are excited about our results and we are optimistic that we will successfully assemble a sunlight-driven water splitting system soon."

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The research was funded by EPSRC, the Christian Doppler Research Association and the OMV Group. Their research was published today online, 23 August, in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

For additional information please contact:

Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: direct, +44 (0) 1223 765542, +44 (0) 1223 332300
Mob: +44 (0) 7774 017464
Email: Genevieve.maul@admin.cam.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

1. The paper 'Selective Reduction of Aqueous Protons to Hydrogen with a Synthetic Cobaloxime Catalyst in the Presence of Atmospheric Oxygen' will be published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition. (DOI: 10.1002/anie.201204180) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.201204180/abstract

2. Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry. The Doppler laboratory addresses application-oriented basic research questions for a sustainable carbon-based economy. The seven year project is supported by the European oil- and gas-company OMV (http://www-reisner.ch.cam.ac.uk/doppler.html).

3. Energy@Cambridge - Energy is a research theme of strategic importance at the University of Cambridge, where we have more than 200 academics working on energy-related projects and strong links with a range of industry partners. The Energy@Cambridge initiative builds on the breadth of research in Cambridge and core competence and capabilities in science, technology, economics and social sciences, crossing formal departmental and discipline boundaries.

4. The Engineering and Physical Sciences research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.

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