Australian scientists have found a cheap way to create hydrogen for clean fuel

A scanning electron microscope image shows the porous structure of the nickel foam used to make UNSW Australia’s inexpensive and efficient oxygen-producing electrode. Image: UNSW Australia

University of NSW scientists have developed a cheap and efficient electrode for splitting water which has the potential to be scaled up for industrial production of the clean energy fuel, hydrogen.

The technology is based on an inexpensive, specially coated foam material which lets the bubbles of oxygen escape quickly.

“Our electrode is the most efficient oxygen-producing electrode in alkaline electrolytes reported to date, to the best of our knowledge,” says Associate Professor Chuan Zhao, of the UNSW School of Chemistry.

“It is inexpensive, sturdy and simple to make, and can potentially be scaled up for industrial application of water splitting.”

The research, by Associate Professor Zhao and Dr Xunyu Lu, is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Costly oxygen-producing electrodes are one of the major barriers to the widespread commercial production of hydrogen by electrolysis, where the water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using an electrical current.

Unlike other water electrolysers which use precious metals as catalysts, the UNSW electrode is made entirely from two non-precious and abundant metals, nickel and iron.

Commercially available nickel foam, which has holes in it about 200 micrometres across, or twice the diameter of a human hair, is electroplated with a highly active nickel-iron catalyst, which reduces the amount of costly electricity needed for the water-splitting.

This ultra-thin layer of a nickel-iron composite also has tiny pores in it, about 50 nanometres across.

“The three-dimensional architecture of the electrode means it has an enormous surface area on which the oxygen evolution reaction can occur,” says Associate Professor Zhao.

Hydrogen production is a rapidly growing industry, but the majority of hydrogen is still produced using fossils fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal, because this approach is still cheaper than electrolysis.

Hydrogen is a good fuel for powering vehicles and storing electricity generated from renewable energy such as solar.

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