Hydrogen is used in an enormous number of processes, including refining crude oil, hydrogenating oils, and potentially driving cars. However, the traditional catalyst used to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen can be expensive. Luckily, Xile Xu’s team from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne stumbled upon a cheaper alternative.
Hydrogen gas can be generated from water by applying an electric current. This process, called electrolysis, is very slow unless a catalyst is added. The most common such catalyst is platinum, which works very well but is also quite expensive. By pure chance, the researchers substituted cheap and abundant amorphous molybdenum sulfides. The new catalysts were stable under many water temperatures and pH values, and actually worked more efficiently than similarly priced catalysts.
According to Hu:
It's a perfect illustration of the famous serendipity principle in fundamental research.
The team intends to continue working to find out why the new catalysts work so well, and to improve on them even more. Eventually, they hope to find catalysts for not only electrolysis, but also sunlight-driven hydrogen production.
Caption: Using a molybdenum based catalyst, hydrogen bubbles are made cheaply and at room temperature.Credit: EPFL / Alain Herzog