Energy in Every Droplet

Nov. 2, 2016

The intersection of water and energy is an interface that in the water industry we often explore in terms of operational efficiencies, conservation policies, and cost perspectives. But on a micro scale, the water-energy nexus is encapsulated within a single molecule. And the research surrounding the separation of this molecule’s atoms could support clean energy production techniques of global importance.

Splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using solar energy—called photcatalytic water splitting—is a promising technology, capable of providing high-energy yield without polluting byproducts. In the process, energy is used to separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce a zero-emissions fuel.

Exciting advancements in photocatalytic water splitting are underway.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers led by professors Yuehe Lin and Scott Beckman in the School of Mechanical and materials Engineering at Washington State University developed a catalyst to facilitate the water-splitting process using low-cost materials.

The team added nanoparticles of inexpensive copper to a cobalt-based framework for their catalyst. The new catalyst conducted electricity better than the commonly used precious metal catalysts; it produced better oxygen, and produced hydrogen at a comparable rate.

“Hydrogen production by electrolysis of water is the greenest way to convert electricity to chemical fuel,” said Junhua Song, a Washington State University Ph.D. student who helped synthesize the catalyst.

In another study, a Stanford University team led by Thomas Jaramillo, associate professor of chemical engineering and of photon science, and James Harris, professor of electrical engineering, made progress toward greater conversion efficiencies. In their photocatalytic exploration, the team was able to capture and store 30 percent of the energy sourced from sunlight into stored hydrogen, beating the prior record of 24.4 percent.

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“This milestone brings us much closer to a sustainable and practical process to use water-splitting as a storage technology,” Jaramillo said. “Improving efficiency has a remarkable impact on lowering costs. We have to continue work on finding more ways to lower the costs to compete with conventional fuels.”

To support these research efforts and others, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently formed a team of national laboratories called HydroGEN Advanced Water Splitting Materials Consortium.

HydroGEN will address advanced challenges to water splitting research by making techniques and equipment accessible to researchers. Its goals are to facilitate collaboration between researchers working on the water-splitting pathways and establish online data portals to collect and share study results.  

HydroGEN is being funded by the Energy Department’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Approximately $10 million per year will support photocatalytic water splitting research.

In what ways do you think these advancements could affect your organization?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.