Hydrogen Power

Catalyst frees hydrogen from seawater

New solar-powered electrolysis system avoids briny bugbears like chlorine production

by Mark Peplow
March 30, 2018

Credit: Bin Liu / Adv. Mater.
A solar-powered electrolysis system generates hydrogen gas at its cathode (left) and oxygen gas at its anode (right).

Harvesting hydrogen gas from water through electrolysis could lead to a renewable source of fuel. For a small island nation like Singapore, though, fresh water is a precious resource. So electrolysis researchers there have turned their attention to the sea. They have now developed a catalyst that helps to electrolyze seawater with record-breaking efficiency, generating oxygen and hydrogen that could eventually feed fuel cells (Adv. Mater. 2018, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201707261).

The system is powered by solar electricity, producing hydrogen from sunlight with an overall efficiency of 17.9%. “As far as we know, that’s the highest efficiency for seawater,” says Bin Liu of Nanyang Technological University, who was part of the research team.

The oceans contain a vast store of hydrogen atoms, but freeing them by electrolysis is a huge challenge. In an electrolyzer, the current used to split briny water usually turns chloride ions into unwanted chlorine gas, while other ions like calcium and magnesium form insoluble precipitates that clog vital catalysts on the electrodes. The electrolysis reactions can also cause pH changes that corrode electrodes.

Credit: Bin Liu/Adv. Mater.
A cobalt hexacyanoferrate catalyst helps to generate bubbles of oxygen gas at the anode (yellow arrow, right) of a solar-powered seawater electrolyzer. Meanwhile, a nickel molybdenum sulfide catalyst at the cathode produces hydrogen gas (red arrow, left). Solar panel shown at far left.

Liu’s team had previously developed a nickel molybdenum sulfide catalyst that lowered the voltage needed to generate hydrogen gas at a cathode from seawater (Sci. Adv. 2015, DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1500259). Their new catalyst relies on earth-abundant elements to oxidize seawater at an anode, producing oxygen gas, protons, and electrons.

To make the anode, the researchers grew nanoneedles of basic cobalt carbonate on carbon fiber cloth. Then they dipped the cloth in 2-methylimidazole, which formed a thin layer of a cobalt-imidazole metal organic framework (MOF) on the outside of the needles. Adding sodium ferrocyanide transformed that layer into cobalt hexacyanoferrate, which inherited the porous nanostructure of the MOF and formed 20-nm-thick catalytic shells around the conducting nanoneedles.

With a commercial triple-junction solar cell to supply electricity, the team tested the system using local seawater, adding nothing more than a phosphate buffer to maintain a neutral pH. After 100 hours of continuous operation, the electrolyzer had made hydrogen and oxygen, but no chlorine at all. Moreover, its electrodes and catalysts were intact, and its output had fallen by just 10%. In contrast, an electrolyzer that used conventional catalysts of platinum and iridium oxide to split the local seawater lost activity much more rapidly, and also produced some chlorine.

“The fact that it is selective for oxygen evolution rather than chlorine evolution is very significant,” says Michael E. G. Lyons, an electrocatalysis researcher at Trinity College Dublin. “It’s a very tricky thing to do.”

Peter Strasser at the Technical University of Berlin, who has worked on seawater electrolysis, points out that the system has a very low current density. To make useful amounts of hydrogen, the system would need a much higher current density, which could trigger chlorine evolution or other unwanted side reactions. “Problems arise when you go to high current densities,” he says.


Liu says that initial tests at higher current densities have not produced any chlorine. But he acknowledges that the system’s performance could be improved. Using fresh water, for example, solar-powered electrolyzers have reached solar-to-hydrogen efficiencies of more than 30% (Nat. Commun. 2016, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13237). Liu’s team is now working with researchers at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics to develop their system into a prototype device for generating hydrogen.


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SANJEEV (Fri Mar 30 15:56:07 EDT 2018)
good one
Stan J (Wed Apr 04 23:05:37 EDT 2018)
Solar to hydrogen to compressed hydrogen to refueling station to vehicle to electricity to battery to electric motor to wheels... What is the efficiency?
Now for comparison, solar to battery to motor to wheels... What is the efficiency now? Cost comparison? Safety? May I enter tunnel with compressed H2 on board? Do we still believe that H2 is suitable energy storage?
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:24:35 EDT 2018)
With this type of a system a vehicle could potentially only store saltwater and create hydrogen upon demand. So no need to store hydrogen and no need to freak out about how it is also used as rocket fuel Mr. Oil Drilling Man.
David Thomas (Thu Apr 05 05:34:00 EDT 2018)
The selectivity at the anode for oxygen over chlorine is exciting and important work.
The discussion about saving fresh water in places like Singapore is fatuous. Even a huge facility, making multi-tonne quantities of hydrogen, will use more water in the staff toilets then in the process stream!
Toni (Thu Apr 05 09:50:28 EDT 2018)
Also since this is supposed to work on a close circuit, once you generate H2 and O2 from a clean source, then the new water from will be free of salts.
Mark B. (Thu Apr 05 15:22:47 EDT 2018)
Where is the counter proof to this assertion ?
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:33:10 EDT 2018)
Hydrogen is a popular rocket fuel and when mixed with oxygen can power a space vehicle. However, the sheer amount of water required to create the required fuel makes this a non viable alternative at this point. I doubt a toilet worth of water is powering a space mission, or 1000x toilets for that matter (Thu Apr 05 09:09:45 EDT 2018)
Who knew that hydrogen was so oppressed that it had to be freed.
Mark B. (Thu Apr 05 15:21:14 EDT 2018)
I found that a perpetual energy machine can be made from this apparatus
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:27:17 EDT 2018)
Yea, a boat with a motor retrofitted for hydrogen. But it's not truely perpetual because the anode and cathode corrode's just a matter of time.
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:38:03 EDT 2018)
For perpetual energy you might want to look into dissimilar metals...just a temperature different in the anode and cathode creates voltage.
Doug P (Thu Apr 05 16:27:21 EDT 2018)
A gallon of gasoline has a mass of 6.0 pounds, the same gallon of liquid hydrogen only has a mass of 0.567 pounds or only 9.45% of the mass of gasoline. Therefore one gallon of gasoline yields 125,400 BTUs of energy while a gallon of liquid hydrogen yields only 34,643 BTUs or 27.6% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline.
The trick is to be able to get to the point where a kilogram of hydrogen could be produced for about US $3. Given that a gallon of gasoline contains about the same amount of energy as 1 kg of hydrogen, as long as gas prices stay north of $3 per gallon, this would make a cost-effective fuel source.
Paul C. Li (Thu Apr 12 22:49:50 EDT 2018)
Think of man-made Dead Sea, we creat a place more difficult to be defeated.
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:35:07 EDT 2018)
I see what your saying but if we use the minerals extracted for other purposes this would not be an issue.
daviddrelinger (Mon May 14 01:44:25 EDT 2018)
Keep up the good work team... together we will crack this code and help usher in a new wave of clean energy!! Necessity breeds ingenuity and this is a fine example of thinking locally while influencing globally. I wonder what the efficiency could be with urine, which contain urea and therefore a bit more available hydrogen to potentially free up, for the same energy expense.

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