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Water Power

Stanford University scientists have made a potentially game-changing energy breakthrough, creating a cheap way to efficiently extract clean-burning hydrogen fuel directly from water.

Today, researchers across the world are working on different solutions for one of the world’s most challenging issues: producing cleaner energy and its impact on the environment. The energy choices made during this pivotal time will have consequences for public health, the global climate and economies for decades to come. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, accounting for about 37 percent of the total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and 31 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. While the combustion of fossil fuels to transport people and goods is the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, combustion from various industrial processes is the third largest source of emissions in the United States.

Scientists at Stanford University have been aggressively seeking cleaner and more efficient alternative energy technologies. One of their key areas of focus is hydrogen because of its natural abundance and distinctive environmental relief. In a major breakthrough, a research team led by Associate Professor Yi Cui and graduate student Haotian Wang has created a cheap way to efficiently extract clean-burning hydrogen fuel directly from water. This is a major advancement for realizing hydrogen fuel as a commercially feasible energy alternative in the near future. 

The primary challenge in generating hydrogen fuel has always been reducing the cost of production technologies to make it competitive with conventional fossil fuels. Despite being deemed environmentally sustainable, the process of producing hydrogen fuel typically involves natural gas—a fossil fuel that adds to global warming. Additionally, the energy conversion process to capture hydrogen requires costly catalysts, like platinum or iridium, to drive the water-splitting reaction. Scientists have long attempted to advance a cheaper and more efficient way to extract pure hydrogen from water. The Stanford team has now achieved this, with remarkable performance efficiency.

Wang and his colleagues first discovered that nickel-iron oxide could be used as a single low-cost catalyst in the water-splitting process. “Some of the most efficient catalysts, such as platinum and iridium, are scarce and expensive, which blocks their industrialization and commercial viability,” explains Wang. “My goal was to rationally design highly-efficient, earth-abundant and cheap catalysts to replace those noble metals, so that it could be cheaply brought to market.”

By using the inexpensive nickel-iron oxide as a single catalyst in the chemical reaction, Wang and his colleagues found their innovative water splitter could produce both hydrogen and oxygen gas continuously for more than 200 hours—a record that easily outperformed the more expensive metal catalysts. “People want to utilize clean energy to do everything currently done with fossil fuels, such as heat their houses and drive their cars,” says Wang. “Some of our future goals are to produce clean hydrogen as energy carriers for home use or cheaper hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

Cui and Wang’s exploration of new electrocatalysts is just one of the many novel energy technologies made possible by Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). It is a long-term effort aimed at developing innovative energy research programs for technologies that are efficient, environmentally conscious and cost-effective when deployed on a larger commercial scale.

Richard Sassoon, managing director of GCEP, is optimistic about the impact of Cui and Wang’s single-catalyst water splitter, along with the other projects chosen in their current funding cycle. “If we can effectively and economically introduce hydrogen into our energy system, it could also have a huge effect on global carbon emissions. Our biggest challenges for the future will be finding ways to assist in translating these breakthroughs into widely-deployed commercial products and services.” 


Q&A with Richard Sassoon

Can you briefly discuss the six new research projects that were selected in this funding cycle? What set them apart and made GCEP so excited about their prospects?

These new research projects represent four awards made to Stanford faculty in a variety of energy areas and two awards that were made to outside universities in the area of carbon-negative energy supply technologies. The four Stanford projects are all excellent science, offering the potential to lead to breakthroughs in reducing worldwide carbon emissions, if successfully deployed. The two projects external to Stanford go even further by trying to design systems that would not only produce energy, but also actually reduce carbon emissions at the same time. These types of approaches could be very important, especially later this century, if we have not been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough in the meantime.


Which potential real-world applications of GCEP’s research are especially intriguing to you?

Among the close to 100 research efforts that GCEP has supported, I believe many have the potential to lead to intriguing real-world applications. From the six recently-selected projects, building a device that combines a combustion engine with a more efficient fuel cell could have a huge impact on reducing carbon emissions if it is widely used in transportation vehicles.


What are some of the other areas related to sustainable energy that your team is interested in further exploring?

As we look to the future, we would like to build on the capabilities that have already been developed in areas such as photovoltaics, bioenergy conversion, batteries, fuels from CO2, advanced combustion systems and the electric grid. We plan to work much more closely with our industry partners in identifying areas and topics that are most relevant to the energy challenge. We will be designing the next phase of GCEP to be flexible to both move forward along the already-identified promising lines of research, as well as be open to new ideas from our research investigators.


Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.