The Berkley Lab at the University of California Berkley has come up with a new catalyst for splitting water. In fairness to readers, there have been other claims from out there that didn’t seem, well, practical. So they’ve been overlooked.  But this time the sense of the work seems to make some sense.

The oxygen gas it seems, isn’t fully coming off with the hydrogen, this is new.

The molybdenum-oxo complex the Berkley Lab team discovered is a high valence metal with the chemical name of (PY5Me2)Mo-oxo. In their studies, the research team found that this complex catalyzes the generation of hydrogen from neutral buffered water or even seawater with a turnover frequency of 2.4 moles of hydrogen per mole of catalyst per second.  The lab electricity consumption is in the milliamp and millivolt range.

Berkley Lab New Water Catalyst. Click image for more info.

What’s different is the new catalyst is “consumed,” or more accurately, reformed as it’s used picking up some of the oxygen.  In the exasperating habit of academia, the study authors don’t elaborate on what’s involved to make the catalyst to start with, or to recycle it back into reusable form. This time though, the chemicals involved don’t seem to be chemically obtuse or abstract, rather the steps through the water splitting process leaves sensible remains that aren’t so different from the starting compound.  Yet, without process data, who knows for certain?

The Berkley team’s catalyst is cheap, or not so expensive as a conventional electrolysis kit.  So for those in need of a lot of hydrogen with a low cost apparatus that throws the hydrogen gas off perhaps without the oxygen there is cause for some attention.  If the abstract and supporting documentation get the explanation to match the phenomena then there could be some scale or commercial thought given to this.  It seems that reforming the catalyst would have to drive off the oxygen and restructure the catalyst molecule.

Hemamala Karunadasa, one of the co-discoverers of the metal catalyst said, “Our new proton reduction catalyst is based on a molybdenum-oxo metal complex that is about 70 times cheaper than platinum, today’s most widely used metal catalyst for splitting the water molecule. In addition, our catalyst does not require organic additives, and can operate in neutral water, even if it is dirty, and can operate in sea water, the most abundant source of hydrogen on earth and a natural electrolyte. These qualities make our catalyst ideal for renewable energy and sustainable chemistry.”

The ability to use untreated or unconditioned water would save investment and operating expense, narrowing the main operations to handling the hydrogen and recycling the catalyst.

Karunadasa, Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long, authored a paper describing this work that appears in the April 29, 2010 issue of the journal Nature, titled “A Molecular Molybdenum-oxo Catalyst for Generating Hydrogen from Water.”

Most of the hydrogen gas in the United States today comes from inexpensive natural gas, a fossil fuel in a low cost extraction process.  Hydrogen can also be produced through the electrolysis of water – using electricity to split molecules of water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. This is an environmentally clean and sustainable method of production – especially if the electricity is generated via a renewable technology such as solar or wind – but requires a water-splitting catalyst.

Efficient water-splitting exists in nature with enzymes called hydrogenases used by plants during photosynthesis, but those enzymes are highly unstable and easily deactivated when removed from their native environment. Human activities demand a stable metal catalyst that can operate under non-biological settings.  Metal catalysts are commercially available, but they are low valence precious metals whose high costs make their widespread use prohibitive. Platinum, the best of them, costs some $2,000 an ounce.

Chang said, “The basic scientific challenge has been to create earth-abundant molecular systems that produce hydrogen from water with high catalytic activity and stability. We believe our discovery of a molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water without the use of additional acids or organic co-solvents establishes a new chemical paradigm for creating reduction catalysts that are highly active and robust in aqueous media.”

Long explains where the team is going from here, “This metal-oxo complex represents a distinct molecular motif for reduction catalysis that has high activity and stability in water. We are now focused on modifying the PY5Me ligand portion of the complex and investigating other metal complexes based on similar ligand platforms to further facilitate electrical charge-driven as well as light-driven catalytic processes. Our particular emphasis is on chemistry relevant to sustainable energy cycles.”

The hinting at the discovery and the hints that some or most of the oxygen isn’t mixed with the hydrogen gas is encouraging.  While the need for hydrogen in forming fuels and as fuel itself are tempered by a current abundance of methane for a low cost source the research could get worthwhile at low enough cost.

The press release is mostly puff, the paper’s abstract is as thin as this writer has ever seen so disappointment about this is a very high risk.  But this is very basic research that could help guide further research.  The press release page has garnered a lot of views in a very few days.


8 Comments so far

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  8. Niclas Jacobsz on July 18, 2014 9:30 AM

    The First Law of Thermodynamics states that if an amount of energy is applied to a system to bring it into an other condition (H2O split to H and O), the same amount of energy must be removed from the system to bring it back in the original condition ( combustion of H and O to H2O) . Hence, at 100% efficiency, no net energy can be taken out, as it then would have come out of nothing. That means that all the energy that would drive a car, doesn’t come from the Hydrogen, but from an other energy source … yes, the electricity grid. HYDROGEN IS NOT AN ENERGY SOURCE !
    Using that electricity directly to drive the car, would be far more efficient and cheaper ..

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