Stanford University has announced that it has developed a cheap way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the idea of using the hydrogen to power fuel cells as a means to supplement solar energy.
Fuel cells use hydrogen to create electricity, with water as a byproduct. The technology has been around since the early 19th Century and has been used extensively in NASA’s space program since the mid 1960s. Fuel cells have been touted as part of a mix for new energy technology to serve as an alternative for fossil fuels. The George W. Bush administration launched a hydrogen fuels initiative to develop fuel cells as both a stationary source of energy and to use in automobiles.
The idea of using solar energy during the day and fuel cells at night involve splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight and, when it is dark, running the fuel cells to produce electricity and water. The process does not create any greenhouse gasses.
The trick has been to find a way to cheaply split water. Silicon, which is used in electrodes that would process the water, tends to corrode very easily. The Stanford researchers decided to try and experiment by coating the silicone electrodes with nickel.
Using water that had been infused with potassium borate and lithium, the experiment showed that the electrodes could split the water into hydrogen and oxygen for 80 hours straight without signs of corrosion. The addition of an ultra thin layer of nickel not only suppressed corrosion but expedited the splitting process.
The Stanford researchers are going to continue refining the process. However the results point the way to a power source that quite literally runs on water. Almost as important, it provides yet another alternative to create hybrid plants that combine solar power and some other type of energy production that can generate electricity 24 hours a day.