We can’t control when the wind blows and when the sun shines, so finding efficient ways to store energy from alternative sources remains an urgent research problem. Now, a group of researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering may have a solution inspired by nature.
I received a lot of emails regarding this topic today so I thought I would repeat a post I did responding to Simon and hopes it puts this a little more in perspective
This new research has three big factors in its favor in splitting hydrogen from water
- Low Cost
- Long life
- 3 x efficiency
If the numbers stack up this is proberbly one of the biggest breakthroughs I have seen to date
I received a lot of emails regarding this topic today so I thought I would repeat a post I did responding to Simon and hope it puts this a little more in perspective
I think this is a work in progress and it is only part of the equation, solving the bottle necks or hurdles one by one. In this case quote: “ the scientists focused on a step where oxygen atoms pair up to form a gas that bubbles away, which has been a bottleneck in the process”
I never expected it to be overunity as they need to work out the hydrogen side, however the biggest barrier seems to be overcome. I also am excited how they are using so many disciplines of science and developing completely new genres of material science. This really is a collaborative effort of skill sets and international collaberation.
In a previous article we published they mentioned they are at 100% at this part of the equation, now the other half has to be attended to.
This step, from my perspective, after 12 years of researching in the area is the first real major breakthrough that has provided the tools, science and direction to tackle the other hurdles and bottlenecks.
There will never be a single bullet which has often been claimed in the past, but a series of solutions for a very complex equation.
Three times more efficient
The team has designed the most efficient catalyst for storing energy in chemical form, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, just like plants do during photosynthesis. Oxygen is released harmlessly into the atmosphere, and hydrogen, as H2, can be converted back into energy using hydrogen fuel cells.
“Today on a solar farm or a wind farm, storage is typically provided with batteries. But batteries are expensive, and can typically only store a fixed amount of energy,” says Sargent. “That’s why discovering a more efficient and highly scalable means of storing energy generated by renewables is one of the grand challenges in this field.”
This new catalyst facilitates the oxygen-evolution portion of the chemical reaction, making the conversion from H2O into O2 and H2 more energy-efficient than ever before. The intrinsic efficiency of the new catalyst material is over three times more efficient than the best state-of-the-art catalyst.
The new catalyst is made of abundant and low-cost metals tungsten, iron and cobalt, which are much less expensive than state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals. It showed no signs of degradation over more than 500 hours of continuous activity, unlike other efficient but short-lived catalysts. Their work was published today in the leading journalScience.
“With the aid of theoretical predictions, we became convinced that including tungsten could lead to a better oxygen-evolving catalyst. Unfortunately, prior work did not show how to mix tungsten homogeneously with the active metals such as iron and cobalt,” says Dr. Bo Zhang, one of the study’s lead authors. “We invented a new way to distribute the catalyst homogenously in a gel, and as a result built a device that works incredibly efficiently and robustly.”
This research united engineers, chemists, materials scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists across three countries. A chief partner in this joint theoretical-experimental study was a leading team of theorists at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory under the leadership of Dr. Aleksandra Vojvodic. The international collaboration included researchers at East China University of Science & Technology, Tianjin University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Canadian Light Source and the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility.
“The team developed a new materials synthesis strategy to mix multiple metals homogeneously — thereby overcoming the propensity of multi-metal mixtures to separate into distinct phases,” said Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This work impressively highlights the power of tightly coupled computational materials science with advanced experimental techniques, and sets a high bar for such a combined approach. It opens new avenues to speed progress in efficient materials for energy conversion and storage.”
“This work demonstrates the utility of using theory to guide the development of improved water-oxidation catalysts for further advances in the field of solar fuels,” said Gary Brudvig, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute.
“The intensive research by the Sargent group in the University of Toronto led to the discovery of oxy-hydroxide materials that exhibit electrochemically induced oxygen evolution at the lowest overpotential and show no degradation,” said University Professor Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley, a leader in this field. “The authors should be complimented on the combined experimental and theoretical studies that led to this very important finding.”
Professor Sargent is the Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology. The group’s work was supported in large part by the Ontario Research Fund–Research Excellence Program, NSERC, the CIFAR Bio-Inspired Solar Energy Program and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Earth-abundant first-row (3d) transition-metal-based catalysts have been developed for the oxygen-evolution reaction (OER); however, they operate at overpotentials significantly above thermodynamic requirements. Density functional theory suggested that non-3d high-valency metals such as tungsten can modulate 3d metal oxides, providing near-optimal adsorption energies for OER intermediates. We developed a room-temperature synthesis to produce gelled oxy-hydroxide materials with an atomically homogeneous metal distribution. These gelled FeCoW oxy-hydroxide exhibits the lowest overpotential (191 mV) reported at 10 mA per square centimeter in alkaline electrolyte. The catalyst shows no evidence of degradation following more than 500 hours of operation. X-ray absorption and computational studies reveal a synergistic interplay between W, Fe and Co in producing a favorable local coordination environment and electronic structure that enhance the energetics for OER.
Press Release from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
New Catalyst is Three Times Better at Splitting Water
This article goes into more detail
Source Newsroom: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
With a combination of theory and clever, meticulous gel-making, scientists from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Toronto have developed a new type of catalyst that’s three times better than the previous record-holder at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen – the vital first step in making fuels from renewable solar and wind power.
The research, published today in the journal Science, outlines a potential way to make a future generation of water-splitting catalysts from three abundant metals – iron, cobalt and tungsten – rather than the rare, costly metals that many of today’s catalysts rely on.
“The good things about this catalyst are that it’s easy to make, its production can be very easily scaled up without any super-advanced tools, it’s consistent, and it’s very robust,” said Aleksandra Vojvodic, a SLAC staff scientist with the SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis who led the theoretical side of the work.
This reaction takes place in several steps, each requiring a catalyst – a substance that promotes chemical reactions without being consumed itself – to move it briskly along. In this case the scientists focused on a step where oxygen atoms pair up to form a gas that bubbles away, which has been a bottleneck in the process.
In previous work, Vojvodic and her SUNCAT colleagues had used theory and computation to look at water-splitting oxide catalysts that contain one or two metals and predict ways to make them more active. For this study, Edward H. Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, asked them to look at the effect of adding tungsten – a heavy, dense metal used in light bulb filaments and radiation shielding – to an iron-cobalt catalyst that worked, but not very efficiently.
With the aid of powerful computers at SLAC and elsewhere and state-of-the-art computational tools, the SUNCAT team determined that adding tungsten should dramatically increase the catalyst’s activity – especially if the three metals could be mixed so thoroughly that their atoms were uniformly distributed near the active site of the catalyst, where the reaction takes place, rather than separating into individual clusters as they normally tend to do.
“Tungsten is quite a large atom compared to the other two, and when you add a little bit of it, it expands the atomic lattice, and this affects the reaction not only geometrically but also electronically,” Vojvodic said. “We were able to understand, on the atomic scale, why it works, and then that was verified experimentally.”
Add Metal Atoms, Mix and Gel
Based on that information, Sargent’s team developed a novel way to distribute the three metals uniformly within the catalyst: They dissolved the metals and other ingredients in a solution and then slowly turned the solution into a gel at room temperature, tweaking the process so the metal atoms did not clump together. The gel was then dried into a white powder whose particles were riddled with tiny pores, increasing the surface area where chemicals can attach and react with each other.
In tests, the catalyst was able to generate oxygen gas three times faster, per unit weight, than the previous record-holder, Sargent said, and it also proved to be stable through hundreds of reaction cycles.
“It’s a big advance, although there’s still more room to improve,” he said. “”And we will need to make catalysts and electrolysis systems even more efficient, cost effective and high intensity in their operation in order to drive down the cost of producing renewable hydrogen fuels to an even more competitive level.”
Sargent said the researchers hope to use the same method to develop other three-metal catalysts for splitting water and also for splitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels, to make renewable fuels and chemical feed stocks. He and five other members of the University of Toronto team have filed for a provisional patent on the technique for preparing the catalyst.
“There are a lot of things we further need to understand,” Vojvodic said. “Are there other abundant metals we can test as mixtures in oxides? What are the optimal mixtures of the components? How stable is the catalyst, and how can we scale up its production? It needs to be tested at the device level, really.”
Jeffrey C. Grossman, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT who was not involved in the study, said, “The work impressively highlights the power of tightly coupled computational materials science with advanced experimental techniques, and sets a high bar for such a combined approach. It opens new avenues to speed progress in efficient materials for energy conversion and storage.”
SLAC research associate Michal Bajdich and Stanford postdoctoral researcher Max García-Melchor also contributed to this work, along with researchers from the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory; East China University of Science & Technology, Tianjin University and the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility in China; and the Canadian Light Source. The research was funded by a number of sources, including the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the CIFAR Bio-Inspired Solar Energy Program, as well as the DOE Office of Science, which funds SUNCAT, and the SLAC Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.
SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more information, please visit slac.stanford.edu.
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.