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Scientists Discover Sustainable Method to Draw Hydrogen Out of Water

Hydrogen-powered automobiles might soon become more than a novelty after a UNSW-led group of scientists demonstrated a much cheaper and sustainable method to create the hydrogen required to power them.

In a paper published in Nature Communications recently, scientists from UNSW Sydney, Griffith University and the Swinburne University of Technology confirmed that capturing hydrogen by splitting it from oxygen in water can be achieved through the use of low-cost metals like iron and nickel as catalysts, which accelerates this chemical reaction while requiring much less energy.

Nickel and Iron, which are found in abundance on Earth, would replace valuable metals ruthenium, platinum, and iridium that up until now are considered benchmark catalysts in the ‘water-splitting’ course.

UNSW School of Chemistry Professor Chuan Zhao says in water splitting, two electrodes put an electric charge to water, which allows hydrogen to be split from oxygen and employed as a power in a fuel cell.

In 2015, Prof Zhao’s team developed a nickel-iron electrode for oxygen generation with a record-high performance. However, Zhao says that on their own, iron and nickel are not suitable catalysts for hydrogen generation, however, where they join at the nanoscale is “where the magic takes place.”

A quick look at today’s steel prices exhibits why this might be the gamechanger required to speed up the transition towards the so-called hydrogen economy. Iron and nickel cost $0.13 and $19.65 a kilogram. In contrast, ruthenium, platinum, and iridium cost $11.77, $42.13 and $69.58 per gram—in other words, thousands of times costlier.

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