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

Lead author of the research, Erwin Reisner, an EPSRC research fellow and head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, says: “A hydrogen evolution catalyst which is active under elevated atmospheric oxygen 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 oxygen and also produce atmospheric oxygen in situ as a result of water splitting.”

Although hydrogen 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. Hydrogen is currently produced from fossil fuels and it produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as a byproduct; it is therefore neither renewable nor clean. A green process such as sunlight-driven water splitting is therefore required to produce ‘green and sustainable hydrogen’.

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 oxygen.

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 oxygen.

Reisner says: “Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve hydrogen 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 hydrogen and the by-product atmospheric oxygen 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.”

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

Source: University of Cambridge