Science, Science and Tech

Fuel From The Sea

Scientists in the University of Wollongong have developed a new, highly efficient catalyst for turning sea water into hydrogen fuel.


A source of renewable energy which has garnered a lot of media attention has been hydrogen energy. With some London buses using hydrogen, as well as Honda releasing the first commercially available hydrogen powered car, the “hydrogen economy” is slowly but steadily on the rise. And with so much water readily available from the oceans, it seems logical to utilise it for a power source.

However, there is a problem to using seawater for the production of hydrogen fuel. Currently used oxidation techniques used to split water down into its component hydrogen and oxygen require a huge overpotential, or voltage input, in order to trigger the reaction. When used on seawater, this also causes the generation of toxic chlorine gas as a by-product. However, researchers at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) have recently developed a light-assisted catalytic polymer which allows water oxidation to take place with much lower energy input. The process is also highly efficient; current estimations place the amount of water needed to supply an average car and family home at five gallons a day.

Prof Gerry Swiegers and Dr Jun Chen, who led the research effort, developed the catalyst as a type of artificial polymer on a conductive film, which is cheaper to produce than previous metal semiconductor catalysts. The flexibility could also allow for the construction of portable hydrogen splitting devices.

The eventual hope is that this research will lead to the construction of artificial plant analogues, able to perform artificial photosynthesis to produce large quantities of fuel grade hydrogen quickly, cleanly and efficiently.


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September 2021
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