Miracle fuel

IFM researchers are helping to make hydrogen extraction from water more feasible.

Professor Ying (Ian) Chen (left) and Dr Luhua Li in the Nanotechnology Laboratory.
Professor Ying (Ian) Chen (left) and Dr Luhua Li in the Nanotechnology Laboratory.

It might seem as unlikely as turning water into wine, but Deakin researchers have helped to develop a new way to turn water into hydrogen fuel.

The breakthrough is an important step towards large scale conversion of water to hydrogen - creating a powerful green energy source from one of our most ubiquitous resources - water.

Working with a team led by the University of Adelaide, the researchers from Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) have helped to develop a hybrid nano-material that - unlike the traditional method of obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels - removes hydrogen from water through an electrochemical process.

And it is thanks to a miracle substance that the breakthrough was possible. Graphene - the world’s first two-dimensional substance - was isolated by two Nobel-winning physicists in the UK only ten years ago and is being hailed as the “wonder material” of the 21st Century.

The world's thinnest and strongest material, it is only one-atom thick, almost transparent and has countless potential applications. The electronics world is abuzz over its potential for providing bendable, almost paper-thin touch screens. 

The hydrogen extraction research has recently been published in world leading journal “Nature Communications” and researchers involved include Deakin’s Chair of Nanotechnology, Professor Ying (Ian) Chen, and Alfred Deakin Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr Luhua Li, both from Deakin’s IFM.

Professor Chen said that the main objective of the project was to produce a non-metal catalyst that could generate hydrogen gas from water via a “hydrogen evolution reaction”. The nano-material that they developed uses graphene and carbon nitride, which are both available in abundant quantities. This is a crucial consideration in terms of large scale conversion because scientists can already remove hydrogen from water with a metal catalyst – platinum. However, platinum is too expensive and too limited a resource for large scale conversion.

“An effective non-metal catalyst would enable us to feasibly extract hydrogen from water as an alternative energy resource,” Professor Chen said.

He explained that the research is still at the fundamental stage, with the non-metal catalyst still not as effective as platinum, but better than many other metal catalysts, and more stable in water, and he believes that it is “totally possible” that the technology could be developed within the next decade.

“Taking hydrogen from water is one of the big dreams of materials researchers,” said Professor Chen. “Water is made from two parts of hydrogen and one part oxygen, but it is hard to separate them.”

“Now we are one important step closer, but we still need to improve performance to make commercialisation possible.”

Professor Chen explained that the new catalyst is so effective because of the interaction between the nitrogen-doped graphene and carbon nitride, which increases electron mobility.

During hydrogen production, an electrical power source is connected to two electrodes, or two conductive plates (typically made from some inert metal such as platinum,stainless steel or iridium which are placed in the water. 

Once the charge goes through, the water will disappear. Hydrogen will appear at the cathode (the negatively charged electrode, where electrons enter the water), and oxygen will appear at the anode (the positively charged electrode). The amount of hydrogen generated is around twice the amount of oxygen.”

Many scientists are predicting that hydrogen will be the fuel of the 21st Century. It can be used in similar ways to petrol or gas, and can generate power, particularly through fuel cells. When extracted from water, it is very clean, with zero emissions, and it returns to water after it has been burned.

“Hydrogen can be made from sea or fresh water. Our challenge is to make extracting the gas efficient and cost effective. Our immediate next step at the IFM is to try to improve the performance of the metal-free catalyst by working on the new nanostructures and understanding better how they work.”

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