Australian Researchers Achieve Efficient Artificial Photosynthesis With Nickel Catalyst

A team of researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia have reported progress in developing an artificial photosynthesis system that uses solar power to create hydrogen via electrolysis using a nickel catalyst.

In an article published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science (abstract only available at the link), the scientists report that they have been able to achieve efficiencies of up to 22 per cent using a variety of sources of water, including river water.

Lead researcher Doug Macfarlane, in an interview with Australia’s ABC news, explained the significance of these latest experiments.

DOUG MACFARLANE: We’ve chosen a very, very highly efficient solar cell, then we run it into what is a relatively standard water-electrolysis cell, so something that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen and it’s the hydrogen that we’re interested in; that’s our energy store that we can use in various ways as a fuel.

ASHLEY HALL: And so the catalyst you’re using here is nickel. Why has that proven to be such a good catalyst?

DOUG MACFARLANE: Well in fact there are many catalysts that are considerably more sophisticated than nickel and often involving obscure or very expensive precious metals. So nickel is a rather ordinary catalyst in many respects, expect for one thing which is that it’s cheap.

It’s an inexpensive metal and it’s very, very – it produces a very, very stable action in its water electrolosis cell. So it’s an ideal choice, purely and simply, because of the cost.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent decades about moving into the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen as a fuel is clean-burning, but it takes a lot of energy to produce it in quantities that would make it useful as a fuel. It is also difficult to store, since it is so light. The system described here does not make storage any easier, but a cheap way to produce hydrogen using just sunlight, water, and a cheap abundant catalyst like nickel, sounds like an important breakthrough for hydrogen production.

Still, if LENR comes online in the near future, I’m not sure that the hydrogen economy will still be considered as attractive as it is currently. For hydrogen to become a ubiquitous fuel, in addition to finding a cheap way to produce it, would require developing a vast infrastructure for hydrogen storage and delivery — with many technical and safety considerations required.

  • Warthog

    Nope. The “hydrogen embrittlement” meme is something I hear everywhere in discussions on hydrogen. It is almost as ubiquitous as the notorious photo of the Hindenberg zeppelin. yet when I actually check in my corrosion handbooks and into research testing, it just doesn’t exist as a reality.

    Hydrogen embrittlement “is” a problem at higher temperatures (as in refineries), but at room temperature, the necessary reactions are so slow as to not show up for centuries.

    There is a mild steel (same material as in natural gas pipes) pipeline in the Ruhr Valley which has been used for inter-plant transport of hydrogen for over a century with no problems.

    And back in the days when the “hydrogen economy” was first getting some serious discussion, an actual section of natgas pipeline was put through substantive tests in transporting hydrogen, again with no detectable problems

  • Curbina

    And that’s precisely the downside, materials as strong to withstand those high pressures are not cheap and have limited duration. Also, the autonomy of current Hydrogen vehicles is not much because of this very problem. And that’s why Magnegas claims a huge advantage above “normal” hydrogen.

  • Zack Iszard

    LENR is not explosive in air at ratios of 5% to 90%. That is a huge safety advantage that combustible fuel of any kind will never match. After watching propane tank after propane tank explode into billowing black smoke in north-central Washington state during a wildfire yesterday, I must say that I’m looking forward to LENR reliance as a way to stop fanning the flames in wildfire-susceptible environments.

    • Enduser

      Electolysis and Photosynthesis are very different processes. The article doesn’t match the title.

  • Daniel Maris

    My own feeling is that hydrogen manufacture could work as form of industrial fuel or power storage for electricity generation but that electric batteries hold out a better prospect for transportation and, ultimately, home energy needs.

    But who really knows? There have been attempts to develop hydrogen fuel pellets. If that technology works then you have a safe and easy method of delivering hydrogen fuel to all sorts of destinations e.g. transport vehicles, factories and so on. Still, hydrogen fuel pellets probably wouldn’t work well with domestic residences, where you want the ease and convenience of either grid connection or home generation.

  • Sandy

    It might be better to use LENR energy to heat hydraulic fluid that can be used to drive a vibrating electrolyzer that produces an oxygen/hydrogen gas that can be stored and transported much more safely than hydrogen gas.

  • Omega Z

    If they should find an economical way to produce hydrogen, The biggest issue with hydrogen will still & always will be the Human Factor.

    We have daily issues with existing carbon fuels. Due to the nature of hydrogen, we’ll experience these daily issues on steroids. And that’s after huge expenditure$ to try & minimize the Human Factor.

  • Curbina

    The downside of Hydrogen is the storage, as Warthog mentions. There is a claim of a system to produce hydrogen that can be stored at natural gas pressures (the claims from Magnegas Inc.) which have some peer reviewed support in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. I See hydrogen as a good energy carrier for many other applications but not for automotive, precisely because of the complexity of its storage. Solutions for using as solid, quicly “rechargeable” hydrogen carrier exist, as per the work of Daniel Nocera, and (allegedly) SHT Inc. Perhaps there’s the missing piece for a workable massification of hydrogen energy. Anyway, if anyone finds the key to highly efficient, or even “over unity” water electrolysis, water is the better hydrogen carrier that we could ask for.

  • Paul

    No Frank, with commercial LENR reactors the hydrogen economy would immediately enter into play in the very important sector of transportation, as a fuel for cars, ships,… Creating a LENR reactor would require at least 15 years more than the industrial reactors also for the E-Cat technology, as the CEO of Volvo said to Rossi, but using LENR indirectly through the H2 fuel would be immediate and the cost of the fuel ridicolous!

    • Daniel Maris

      Well it’s not going to be ridiculously cheap is it? Putting three complex processes together: LENR generator, hydrogen manufacture and hydrogen delivery systems – that’s expensive.

  • Warthog

    Much of the necessary infrastructure for the hydrogen economy already exists in that currently used for natural gas (pipelines). The necessary technology does NOT need fundamental development from basics, as gaseous hydrogen is already a very widely used industrial gas, so the pitfalls are known and solutions pretty much already exist. Probably the only missing piece is “in-vehicle” storage, and even there, ultra-high-pressure tanks are being tested.

  • ecatworld

    Good questions, Christina. Truth is I don’t know for sure. It just seems to me that hydrogen as a fuel, while it is clean and could potentially be produced cheaply, has some drawbacks.

    First, it is harder to contain than other fuels (very leaky), and it is highly combustible, therefore safety issues come into play.

    Maybe creating hydrogen for fuels on-demand as you suggest would get around some of the problems with transportation.

    Toyota is betting on hydrogen fuel cells over batteries, so maybe it does as a future as a fuel.

    But if LENR can be used to generate electricity directly as Rossi has been implying, maybe there is no need for hydrogen as an intermediary.

    Just a few thoughts, and I could be proved wrong!

  • Christina

    Frank, I meant what’s feasible in the next five years?


    • Dan Woodward

      Several recent research articles have shown that we are getting close to having fast and low energy methods for splitting water into H and O. If these are perfected, we would not have to store hydrogen____we could just store water and extract hydrogen on demand.

      • Christina