23 Sep 2015

Splitting water into hydrogen fuel

Synchrotron used to observe future renewable energy catalyst

In an era of increasing energy demands, scientists are searching for the holy grail of chemistry: a way to use renewable resources, like solar power, to split water into hydrogen fuel.

When hydrogen is used as a fuel, it leaves behind no pollutants or greenhouse glasses, only water.

Pioneers in the field use electrical energy to split water into its component parts: hydrogen and oxygen. Right now, it is an expensive process, with low net energy output. But with lower electronic barriers, hydrogen could replace petroleum as the vehicle fuel of choice.

Researchers hope to eventually produce hydrogen fuel with zero-emissions energy sources, like solar, mimicking photosynthesis and using existing CO2. But first, the water splitting process must be made more efficient.

Soochow University-Western University researcher Dr. Dongniu Wang and Canadian Light Source scientist Dr. Jigang Zhou are harnessing synchrotron techniques to rationally design a catalyst that could significantly reduce the energy that goes into water splitting.

Wang says the search is on for a cheap, abundant, and high-efficiency catalyst to help along the water splitting reaction. In order to do so, researchers must understand what’s going on during the reaction, as well as the final results.  

Without a synchrotron, it was possible to identify materials that improved water splitting efficiency but not how they helped along the reaction. And if researchers are going to design a catalyst to significantly lower the energy barrier for water splitting, they need to know not only what works well, but how it works.

By studying many phases of the chemistry in the water splitting process, the team identified that gamma nickel oxy hydroxide sped up the splitting faster than any other catalyst. The thing is, gamma nickel oxy hydroxide is created during the reaction from the nickel oxide that’s originally added.

“The only way to identify the active phase high efficiency catalyst is through synchrotron scans,” says Wang. “We are lucky at the CLS because we can use the whole range of X-ray to catch the whole transition process.”

Initial results are promising, pointing to highly-efficient catalytic candidates, but solar-powered water splitting is still a long way off. Zhou, however, believes that is exactly why this research is exciting.

“This is the true meaning of innovation. Not looking to present technologies but technologies far in our future.

Jigang Zhou (L) and Dongniu Wang are working with a wealth of researchers towards a solar fuel as a clean alternative fuel. “This work could not be done without help from the beamline scientists at SGM and SXRMB, as well as Dr. TK Sham and researchers at SWC,” says Zhou.
Cite: Wang, Dongniu, Jigang Zhou, Yongfeng Hu, Jinli Yang, Na Han, Yanguang Li, and Tsun-Kong Sham. "In situ X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure Study of Advanced NiFe (OH) x Electrocatalyst on Carbon Paper for Water Oxidation. "The Journal of Physical Chemistry C (2015).

About the Canadian Light Source Inc.:

The CLS is the brightest light in Canada—millions of times brighter than even the sun—used by scientists to get incredibly detailed information about the structural and chemical properties of materials at the molecular level, with work ranging from mine tailing remediation to cancer research and cutting-edge materials development.

The CLS has hosted over 2,500 researchers from academic institutions, government, and industry from 10 provinces and 2 territories; delivered over 40,000 experimental shifts; received over 10,000 user visits; and provided a scientific service critical in over 1,500 scientific publications, since beginning operations in 2005. The CLS has over 200 full-time employees.

CLS operations are funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Western Economic Diversification Canada, National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.

For more information visit the CLS website or contact:

Victoria Martinez
Communications Coordinator 
1 (306) 657-3771

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