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The clean energy economy requires the perfect sync of energy conversion and storage. Both solar and wind energy sources have excess electricity, and scientists at the Washington State University found a purpose for it. One idea is to use the excess electrical power from these energy sources to split hydrogen and oxygen in water.

Hydrogen gas has been used in industries for several purposes like fertilizer production, food processing, and refining petroleum. The water splitting method is one way to extract hydrogen from water. The method involves the use of electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Extracted hydrogen gas can be used to power hydrogen-based fuel cells.

However, water splitting is not widely used because the metal catalysts, such as platinum and ruthenium, are very expensive. Other viable methods that can split water require too much energy and the catalysts break down quickly.

Researchers, led by Prof. Yuehe Lin in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, utilized two cheap metals that are abundant in nature to create a catalyst. The inexpensive catalyst is a porous nanofoam that resembles a tiny sponge. Its unique atomic structure and several exposed surfaces can catalyze the important reaction more efficiently than expensive precious metal catalysts. It also catalyzes the reaction with less energy and at a very low activity loss in a 12-hour stability test.

“We took a very simple approach that could be used easily in large-scale production,” said Shaofang Fu, a Ph.D. student who synthesized the catalyst and did the most of the activity loss test.

The researchers are seeking additional funding to scale up the catalyst that is needed for large-scale testing.