Hydrogen for Energy? Splitting Water Molecule on the Cheap


Water-splitting module a source of perpetual energy

by Mike Williams,  
Water-splitting module a source of perpetual energy
A schematic and electron microscope cross-section show the structure of an integrated, solar-powered catalyst to split water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. The module developed at Rice University can be immersed into water directly to produce fuel when exposed to sunlight. Credit: Jia Liang/Rice University

Rice University researchers have created an efficient, low-cost device that splits water to produce hydrogen fuel.

The platform developed by the Brown School of Engineering lab of Rice materials scientist Jun Lou integrates catalytic electrodes and perovskite solar cells that, when triggered by sunlight, produce electricity. The current flows to the catalysts that turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, with a sunlight-to-hydrogen efficiency as high as 6.7%.

This sort of catalysis isn’t new, but the lab packaged a perovskite layer and the electrodes into a single module that, when dropped into water and placed in sunlight, produces hydrogen with no further input.

The platform introduced by Lou, lead author and Rice postdoctoral fellow Jia Liang and their colleagues in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano is a self-sustaining producer of fuel that, they say, should be simple to produce in bulk.

“The concept is broadly similar to an artificial leaf,” Lou said. “What we have is an integrated module that turns sunlight into electricity that drives an electrochemical reaction. It utilizes water and sunlight to get chemical fuels.”

Perovskites are crystals with cubelike lattices that are known to harvest light. The most efficient perovskite solar cells produced so far achieve an efficiency above 25%, but the materials are expensive and tend to be stressed by light, humidity and heat.

“Jia has replaced the more expensive components, like platinum, in perovskite solar cells with alternatives like carbon,” Lou said. “That lowers the entry barrier for commercial adoption. Integrated devices like this are promising because they create a system that is sustainable. This does not require any external power to keep the module running.”

Liang said the key component may not be the perovskite but the polymer that encapsulates it, protecting the module and allowing to be immersed for long periods. “Others have developed catalytic systems that connect the solar cell outside the water to immersed electrodes with a wire,” he said. “We simplify the system by encapsulating the perovskite layer with a Surlyn (polymer) film.”

The patterned film allows sunlight to reach the solar cell while protecting it and serves as an insulator between the cells and the electrodes, Liang said.

“With a clever system design, you can potentially make a self-sustaining loop,” Lou said. “Even when there’s no sunlight, you can use stored energy in the form of chemical fuel. You can put the hydrogen and oxygen products in separate tanks and incorporate another module like a fuel cell to turn those fuels back into electricity.”

The researchers said they will continue to improve the encapsulation technique as well as the solar cells themselves to raise the efficiency of the modules.

15 Responses

  1. New technology/energy open thread posted.


  2. I wrote an article on this a couple months ago on Motley Fool



  3. Liked by 1 person

  4. This is interesting. All this stuff (including what is often premature or overblown excitement) is important–because eventually it all comes together to really create a universal innovation that changes the trajectory of human history.

    I just expect it will be–as these things often are–decades before it gets past the “it’s just about to blow up big” stage. There’s always caveats and limitations and other issues that mean we will still be waiting forever for cars that run on tap water or whatever. Still, each step forward is important!


    • Hydrolosys is one way to solve the storage problem. The problem is that it takes a crapton of energy to break down water. It will probably never be cheaper to get hydrogen this way as opposed to natural gas drilling. So, the physics and the economics are a challenge.

      Elon Musk’s battery wall is another. I suspect that decentralized storage will be the answer, so instead of a battery wall for a generating station, you would have batteries for every structure, where solar panels on your roof charge a battery that you draw on at night.


    • Tone-deaf but when you are the governor of the only important state and the center of the universe–and also need money–of course you’re going to send them their tax bill. Some of them will be getting tax bills for years after this, as New York decides they probably worked in New York that year even if they haven’t even been there. Once you work there–or so I’ve heard–they like to try and bleed money out of you by imagining you worked there forevermore.


  5. From Tina Tchen, CEO of the Hollywood women advocacy group that is the big movie industry mouthpiece of the MeToo women:

    One thing that comes up a lot when we talk about weaponization is this idea that there’s an inherent contradiction in what Mr. Biden has said about Christine Blasey Ford and Ms. Reade. Do you think there’s a contradiction there?

    What got lost is the difference in circumstance, which was that Christine Blasey Ford deserved the benefit of the doubt in that her allegations should have been taken seriously. The allegations of the other survivors who had something to say about Brett Kavanaugh deserve to be taken seriously. They all deserve to be investigated, and there was a body that was charged with doing that investigation before they made the decision.

    This was one that only the Senate Judiciary Committee had the authority to investigate. And only the U.S. Senate was going to make that lifetime decision on elevating someone to the Supreme Court. What happened instead was the investigation was truncated, her testimony was truncated and controlled in a way that there was not full transparency. There was no reason to rush that nomination through without looking at every piece of evidence that came forward and making sure the American public had access to every piece of that.

    That’s the difference. That’s what it means when you say Christine Blasey Ford deserved the benefit of the doubt coming forward as did the other people that came forward with Brett Kavanaugh.

    And in this case, you’re calling for the same thing. But there’s no clear body charged with investigating Ms. Reade’s allegation.

    That’s exactly it. There’s not an employer. He’s not in the Senate where the ethics committee might do it. So at the end of the day, the employer is essentially the American people, and that’s why we are stuck. I’m sure for American women, this is frustrating. It’s frustrating, it’s painful. I think we also overlook the real pain that so many women have experienced in their own lives. When they hear this, and this becomes weaponized in a political campaign, the personal pain that people go through when they’re now having to make one of the most important decisions all of us can make as citizens, which is to elect our leaders.

    Do you wish the vice president’s male colleagues and allies were pushed to engage on this issue more? Most of the questions are being asked of his female surrogates. Is there something frustrating about that dynamic to you?

    Let me tell you, Lisa, that is a pattern that has happened again for decades, if not millenniums. It is women. It is women who are always raising these issues. It is women who are fighting the battles to make sure that sexual violence is addressed, that we have systems and justice in place that people have a right to be heard, and actually also women who have been fighting for fairness in the process. For those who’ve been accused to have process, too.

    I think this misses the role of the press and the partisan lens of liberals and conservatives both. But it may be a fair assessment of how the activist women respond, which is a separate issue. They think it is all a big deal and remain suspicious of all men, but cut some slack if the guy says he welcomes investigation, even if he really doesn’t, because who the hell would?


    • What happened instead was the investigation was truncated, her testimony was truncated and controlled in a way that there was not full transparency.

      As compared to any other senate investigation? Not to mention, what does “truncated” mean in this case? Wouldn’t the senate–all of it, I guess–decide how much investigation or a public hearing there should be, and what it would look like? What advise and consent looks like? What does truncation mean?

      But also: senate investigation and “full transparency” don’t seem to be phrases that go together, IMO.

      And the whole thing skirts the issue of how the press handled both things–what most of the kvetching is about–and how some activists have gone from “believe all women” to “listen to women and send thoughts and prayers but still vote for Biden”. Not to mention the disturbing number of tweets from people whose history suggests their serious when they say: “Biden could have raped my child and I’d still vote for him, this election is that important”.

      I remember a lot of “eh, whatever, who cares” about Trump’s accusers from the right, but nothing like that.


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