Electrolysis breakthrough could solve the hydrogen conundrum

Electrolysis breakthrough could solve the hydrogen conundrumCredit: Monash University

Hydrogen gas is the perfect green fuel—it can be extracted from water and is non-polluting. But although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it doesn’t naturally occur in large quantities as a gas on Earth.

Hydrogen gas is the perfect green fuel—it can be extracted from water and is non-polluting. But although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it doesn’t naturally occur in large quantities as a gas on Earth.

The race is on to find cheap, efficient, non-polluting ways of generating and storing hydrogen. It’s long been known that an electric current will cause the elements of water—hydrogen and oxygen—to split to produce hydrogen and oxygen gases in a process known as electrolysis. This process can also be reversed to generate electricity when hydrogen and oxygen gases interact in a fuel cell (NASA has used fuel cells to power satellites and space capsules since the 1960s).

Until recently, the cost of electricity has been a roadblock to producing industrial quantities of hydrogen gas through electrolysis. But low-cost renewable electricity technologies have removed this barrier.

Another obstacle is that efficiently splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gases has required rare and expensive metal catalysts such as platinum and iridium. Iridium is one of the rarest and most costly elements on Earth—it’s often carried here by meteorites. And even the most stable iridium-based catalysts can only withstand electrolysis for a short time.

“If you increase the temperature while running water electrolysis, the iridium-based catalyst will dissolve and you lose it,” explains Dr. Alexandr Simonov from the Monash School of Chemistry. “This is the worst thing that can happen, to dissolve something that costs hundreds of dollars per gram. It can also go into other components of your electrolytic device, contaminating them and preventing them from proper operation.”

The first water electrolyzers used alkaline water, and this remains the traditional approach, Dr. Simonov says. But more advanced and efficient technology uses an acidic environment, using solid-state electrolytes—unfortunately, the catalysts can’t withstand this environment for long.

Dr. Simonov and members of his research team, including Dr. Manjunath Chatti and James Gardiner, have made a discovery with enormous potential to solve the instability problem, making hydrogen generation by water electrolysis more economically viable.

“We’re replacing iridium with elements that are abundant, cheap, and operate in a more stable manner,” Dr. Simonov says. “We’ve demonstrated their stability in very strongly acidic conditions and up to 80°C, which is an industrially relevant temperature. We achieved absolutely no degradation.”

Electrolysis breakthrough could solve the hydrogen conundrum
Hydrogen-powered buses are on the road in Brazil. Credit: Monash University

Dr. Simonov describes the system he’s developing with his team as “self-healing.” Because all metals—even iridium—dissolve during electrolysis, the researchers wondered if the dissolved material could be redeposited on the electrode during operation.

“It turned out that it can,” he says. “We’ve produced a highly active electrode surface based on abundant metals that is sustaining industrially relevant rates of water splitting.” The high temperature and the strongly acidic environment “makes our most recent work different from pretty much everyone in the scientific world, and brings us closer to industry application,” he says.


How melting plastic waste could heat homes

Breakthrough means less pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions 

 Domestic plastic waste for recycling. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

It is a problem bedevilling households across the UK: what can we do with the mountains of food-spattered plastic waste left in our bins?

Now a group of scientists say they have the answer – by using the detritus of domestic life to heat homes.

Researchers at the University of Chester have found a way to use dirty plastic waste to produce hydrogen, which can heat homes and fuel cars without producing greenhouse gas emissions. The process uses a glass kiln, heated to 1,000C, to instantly break down unrecyclable plastic to release a mix of gases including hydrogen.

The technology will be used commercially for the first time at a plant near Ellesmere Port in Cheshire later this year after a pair of “waste-energy” companies agreed to invest.

Peele Environmental, the owner of the plant, said the project could help keep 25 million tonnes of “contaminated” plastics, which cannot be recycled, from ending up in landfills or the ocean. Hydrogen could play a key role in helping the UK meet its climate targets by replacing traditional gas used for decades in stoves, radiators and boilers. It could also re place petrol and diesel in cars, vans and buses.

“Surely the world must wake up to this technology,” said Professor Joe Howeof the University of Chester. “It will make waste plastic valuable with it being able to power the world’s towns and cities, and most importantly it can help clean up our oceans of waste plastic now.”

However, similar plans have raised concern among environmentalists in the past. Although hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas, the process of creating it from plastic releases potent greenhouse gases including methane.

The Cheshire project plans to trap the gases and pipe them into a power plant to generate electricity. This would not be any more polluting than the UK’s existing gas-fired power plants, and would avoid the need to extract more gas from the ground. MORE


Cities could one day power homes and fuel cars with plastic, a giant step toward solving the pollution crisis

Canadian clean-tech companies show their stuff at CEM

Canadian innovation and breakthrough technologies present a glimmer of a green future.

Simon Beller, CFO, left, and Jos Hoetjes, chemical engineer, BC Biocarbon. Image: Nelson Bennett/Business in Vancouver

Last week’s Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver gave Canadian clean-tech companies a chance to show their stuff.

The event, hosted by Natural Resources Canada, is described as “a global forum where major economies and forward leaning countries work together to share best practices and promote policies and programs that encourage and facilitate the transition to a global clean energy economy.”

Here’s a look at some of the Canadian companies that presented their technologies.


Based in Oakville, Ontario, Terrestrial Energy was named one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies in MIT Technology Review, curated by Bill Gates.

It is among a handful of companies developing small-scale molten salt nuclear reactors. Terrestrial’s process has cogeneration capabilities in that it can use the heat from its nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen cheaply, and combine it with carbon to produce low-carbon gasoline.

The company plans to start building its first commercial plant in Ontario in the 2020s. A second plant is planned for the U.S.

Traditional nuclear power plants can cost between $8 billion and $20 billion, but Terrestrial Energy claims it can build a 200-megawatt plant for $1 billion. Molten salt reactors do not have the same dangers of meltdowns that have plagued traditional water-cooler nuclear power plants.

Canadian and American governments have provided 25% of the company’s financing to date, with the rest coming from high-net-worth individuals.


Spun out of the University of British Columbia, Agora Energy Technologies is a B.C. clean-tech startup that is developing a redox flow battery that uses carbon dioxide, which is then turned into a storage medium.

Flow batteries are believed to be a better storage solution than lithium-ion batteries for intermittent wind and solar power. Large amounts of electricity can be stored in liquid form for much longer periods of time using any number of catalysts – vanadium being the most common. But Agora plans to use captured CO2, which would then be converted into the storage medium, which is proprietary.

“The carbon dioxide enters the battery and the catalyst converts it to a storage medium, and that storage medium is what is used to store the energy,” said Hannah MacDonald, Agora content manager. “So carbon dioxide and electricity go in, the carbon dioxide gets converted and stored.”

MacDonald said the Agora battery system could be used to produce a carbonate product – soda ash – which is used in detergents, glass and other industrial processes. MORE

Breakthrough Energy Ventures collaborates with Climeon to accelerate deployment of geothermal heat power

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Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investor-led venture fund backed by some of the world’s top business executives, has invested in Baseload Capital, the private investment company which Climeon owns part of, to speed up the global deployment of low temperature geothermal heat power.

– Working together with Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Baseload Capital we can now take leaps, rather than steps, toward our vision of becoming the number one climate solver, says Thomas Öström, CEO of Climeon.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is an investor-led fund created to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The team funds cutting-edge companies with the potential to eliminate a half gigaton of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year and invests across five grand challenges: electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and buildings. These are the broad areas of activity that contribute most to GHG emissions. The Fund’s investment team has identified low temperature geothermal heat power as one of the most significant opportunities available to address GHG emissions in the production of electricity.

– Geothermal energy from low temperatures has the potential to transform the energy landscape. We believe that the combination of Baseload’s implementation expertise and Climeon’s Heat Power technology has the ability to unlock the large potential of low temperature geothermal resources and result in the deployment of significant quantities of renewable electricity, says Carmichael Roberts, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. MORE

Australian court rejects coal mine on climate grounds

Australia is one of the world’s biggest producers of coal AFP/TORSTEN BLACKWOOD

SYDNEY: An Australian court on Friday (Feb 8) delivered a landmark ruling by rejecting plans to build a coal mine on the grounds it would worsen climate change.

Chief Justice Brian Preston said a planned open cut coal mine in a scenic part of New South Wales state would be in “the wrong place at the wrong time”.

The ruling by the New South Wales Land and Environment Court was notable for citing not only local impacts of building the proposed Gloucester Resources mine, but also secondary “climate change impacts” of the eventual use of the coal. SOURCE


Bill Gates-led fund is investing in a startup to build a cheap battery using a “refrigerator on steroids”

In many parts of the world, it’s cheaper to build new renewable-energy projects than fossil-fuel power plants. To fully replace carbon-based fuels, however, we need solutions to store large amounts of energy for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

A model of Malta’s 10MW pilot system.

The Boston-based startup Malta thinks it has one answer in the form of heat pumps, chilled chambers, and molten salt. On Dec. 19, it graduated from Alphabet’s secretive X lab and raised $26 million toward building its first full-scale pilot plant. The funding round was led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was set up by Bill Gates with support from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Jack Ma, and Mukesh Ambani.

The idea is to use excess electricity from solar panels and wind turbines to run a large heat pump. “It’s essentially a refrigerator on steroids,” says Adrienne Little, the startup’s technical lead on heat exchangers. It extracts heat from a chamber full of antifreeze-like chemicals, lowering the temperature to –70°C (–94 °F). That heat is dumped in another chamber where salt—not exactly table salt, but similar—is heated to as high as 565°C (1,050°F). These insulated chambers hold the energy until it’s needed. That’s when a heat engine—essentially like a steam turbine inside a power plant—is used to convert the heat and the cold back to usable electricity. MORE

Breakthrough could triple the energy collected by solar to 60% efficiency

Current solar cells are able to convert into electricity around 20% of the energy received from the Sun, but a new technique has the potential to convert around 60% of it by funneling the energy more efficiently.

UK researchers can now ‘funnel’ electrical charge onto a chip. Using the atomically thin semiconductor hafnium disulphide (HfS2), which is oxidized with a high-intensity UV laser, the team were able to engineer an electric field that funnels electrical charges to a specific area of the chip, where they can be more easily extracted.

This method has the potential to harvest three times the energy compared with traditional systems. The researchers believe their breakthrough could result in solar panels, no bigger than a book, producing enough energy to power a family-sized house. MORE