A new silicon-based water splitter is both low-cost and corrosion-free. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen is stored as fuel. (Credit: Markus/Flickr)

Device uses light to split water into clean hydrogen

Scientists have developed an inexpensive device that uses light to split water into oxygen and clean-burning hydrogen.

The water splitter is a silicon semiconductor coated in an ultrathin layer of nickel and it could help pave the way for large-scale production of clean hydrogen fuel from sunlight, according to the researchers. Their results are published in the journal Science.

The goal is to supplement solar cells with hydrogen-powered fuel cells that can generate electricity when the sun isn’t shining or demand is high.

This image shows two electrodes connected via an external voltage source splitting water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The illuminated silicon electrode (left) uses light energy to assist in the water-splitting process and is protected from the surrounding electrolyte by a 2-nm film of nickel. (Credit: )
This image shows two electrodes connected via an external voltage source splitting water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The illuminated silicon electrode (left) uses light energy to assist in the water-splitting process and is protected from the surrounding electrolyte by a 2-nm film of nickel. (Credit: Guosong Hong, Stanford University)

“Solar cells only work when the sun is shining,” says study co-author Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University. “When there’s no sunlight, utilities often have to rely on electricity from conventional power plants that run on coal or natural gas.”

A greener solution, Dai says, is to supplement the solar cells with hydrogen-powered fuel cells that generate electricity at night or when demand is especially high.

How to split water

To produce clean hydrogen for fuel cells, scientists have turned to an emerging technology called water splitting. Two semiconducting electrodes are connected and placed in water. The electrodes absorb light and use the energy to split the water into its basic components, oxygen and hydrogen.

The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen is stored as fuel.

When energy is needed, the process is reversed. The stored hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen are combined in a fuel cell to generate electricity and pure water.

The entire process is sustainable and emits no greenhouse gases. But finding a cheap way to split water has been a major challenge.

Today, researchers continue searching for inexpensive materials that can be used to build water splitters efficient enough to be of practical use.

Silicon solution

“Silicon, which is widely used in solar cells, would be an ideal, low-cost material,” says Stanford graduate student Michael J. Kenney, co-lead author of the Science study. “But silicon degrades in contact with an electrolyte solution.

“In fact, a submerged electrode made of silicon corrodes as soon as the water-splitting reaction starts.”

In 2011, another Stanford research team addressed this challenge by coating silicon electrodes with ultrathin layers of titanium dioxide and iridium. That experimental water splitter produced hydrogen and oxygen for eight hours without corroding.

“Those were inspiring results, but for practical water splitting, longer-term stability is needed,” Dai says. “Also, the precious metal iridium is costly. A non-precious metal catalyst would be desirable.”

To find a low-cost alternative, Dai suggested that Kenney and his colleagues try coating silicon electrodes with ordinary nickel.

“Nickel is corrosion-resistant,” Kenney says. “It’s also an active oxygen-producing catalyst, and it’s earth-abundant. That makes it very attractive for this type of application.”

Nickel nanofilm

For the experiment, the Dai team applied a 2-nanometer-thick layer of nickel onto a silicon electrode, paired it with another electrode, and placed both in a solution of water and potassium borate.

When light and electricity were applied, the electrodes began splitting the water into oxygen and hydrogen, a process that continued for about 24 hours with no sign of corrosion.

To improve performance, the researchers mixed lithium into the water-based solution. “Remarkably, adding lithium imparted superior stability to the electrodes,” Kenney says. “They generated hydrogen and oxygen continuously for 80 hours—more than three days—with no sign of surface corrosion.”

These results represent a significant advance over previous experimental efforts, adds Dai.

“Our lab has produced one of the longest lasting silicon-based photoanodes,” he says. “The results suggest that an ultrathin nickel coating not only suppresses corrosion but also serves as an electrocatalyst to expedite the otherwise sluggish water-splitting reaction.

“Interestingly, a lithium addition to electrolytes has been used to make better nickel batteries since the Thomas Edison days. Many years later we are excited to find that it also helps to make better water-splitting devices.”

The scientists plan to do additional work on improving the stability and durability of nickel-treated electrodes of silicon as well as other materials.

The Precourt Institute for Energy and the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford and the National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

chat13 Comments

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13 Comments

  1. sven

    brawndo’s got electrolytes

  2. James Meszaros

    This is really bad technology. On earth we have a closed system with a set amount of water. When we split 1 gallon of water into hydrogen and oxygen, then burn it for fuel, we don’t get 1 gallon of water back. We get a few teaspoons at most. 1 gallon doesn’t sound like much but imagine doing this, at an exponential rate, for 1000 years. We will, literally, run out of water. Since most of our oxygen to breath actually comes from the oceans we will all die. Folks, please stop this. Don’t support the splitting of water ever. We will be killing the planet permanently.

  3. Aaron

    James, thanks for your comment. I woke up and realized I hadn’t heard anything truly stupid all day until I read your post. 1000 years, huh? How’d ya come up with that figure? I suppose we should just keep burning stuff for fuel until we run out of that too, in like 50000 minutes. Please jump Sites until you read “DR. Seuss” in the title and leave science alone.

  4. John

    Um…. uh… (ripping up my chem degree)…
    No, I didn’t know that. But all this green stuff is wrong. Take wind power. If we convert it to electricity, it literally “eats” the wind, and will dramatically change weather patterns. Creating calmness in areas of calm with will surely increase winds elsewhere. Like the Phillipines. Stop Green Power before it is too late.

  5. Probably Not

    @James Meszaros, where did you get your information from, because that is certainly not the case…. 2 H_2 + O_2 = 2 H_2O . What else would it be forming? Please consult a reference before making such claims: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~kenneth-weston/chapter3.pdf

  6. Sean

    Photoelectrochemical water splitting has been around for a long time. Many groups work on this and the paper isn’t even on a novel material structure. The editors of Science and websites like this have no clue what’s been done before.

  7. MasterShake

    @James Meszaros
    Are you serious? You do realize that the amount of oxygen and hydrogen remains the same after the reactions? Neither are destroyed. Meaning they have the potential to combine and create the same amount of water. What do you think photosynthesis is? Plants are constantly converting water, CO2 and sunlight into carbs and oxygen. Are you saying that plants are consuming all our water also?

  8. Jeremy McElwrath
  9. Dan Bernard

    John–wind power causes typhoons? Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Fox News troll on the loose.

  10. thecrud

    Ah the ever present Fox news folks.
    We have to put the opposing view law back in opinion news.

  11. Steve

    Hydrogen is the most abundant thing in our Universe, and being fair the amount of energy you can get from one gallon of water once converted is beyond any other fossil fuel. The amount of water that is on this planet (2/3rds of it) beggars belief, and to have a moron state that it would be all gone in a thousand years, simply is ludicrous. If you burn Hydrogen in an engine you get the explosion needed to make it work, the exhaust….water.. the same amount you started with *duh!* combustion may cause a trace amount of NOx dependent on the temp of the engine burn,,,clean and simple,,,kinda like James,,, Read a book people *Sheesh*

  12. Anurag Diwakar

    water splitting is good.I THINK WORK SHOULD ALSO BE DONE ON WATER SPLITTING BY ULTRASONIC,THAT TO IS EFFICIENT.

  13. gopinath

    water want to split in to the hydrogen and oxygen. then we can use the hydrogen as a fuel in all the vehicle. then we can able to use the vehicle without polluting one. by the usage of hydrogen fuel we can reduce the pollution. then by using the oxygen we can able to built the new ozone layer.

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