Multinational consortium works on water-splitting prototype

Scientists from Australia, Germany and the USA met in Wollongong in early March to move towards establishment of a global consortium to research effective strategies for water splitting.

University of Wollongong (UoW) scientists are behind the consortium which is using sunlight to convert water into important chemical fuels such as hydrogen gas. It could also lead to the reverse process – creating water from electricity generated by a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell.

The research promises a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing CO2 from fossil-fuel use. The process would also have huge commercial benefits given that it would be a renewable and low-cost fuel option.

Cooperating with the Australian university are leading research scientists from Rutgers and Princeton Universities, USA, and the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Scientists from India the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India, and the Indian Institute of Science will also engage in the global project.

The consortium, centred on UoW’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), is bringing together the wide range of skills necessary – including the design of molecular catalysts, fabrication of nanostructured electrodes, cell design and practical implementation.

“Advances in our understanding of Nature’s catalytic principles coupled with advances in nanofabrication bring us ever closer to a truly sustainable energy future – but the challenge in delivering practical systems that can be economically implemented remains formidable,” ACES executive director Professor Gordon Wallace said.

The core technology comprises separate but complementary innovations developed via collaborations between UW, Princeton, Rutgers and Monash University. Wallace said these innovations can now be packaged together to provide an efficient method of splitting water into its component parts using only sunlight.

Broadly, the technologies involve the use of novel catalytic processes that enhance the efficient production of certain molecules of interest:

· The first technology uses a highly-efficient chemical process, via novel electrocatalysts, to convert water into hydrogen gas.

· The second technology mimics the water-oxidising centre in photosynthesis to produce oxygen gas from water under sunlight (ie, splitting of water to form oxygen). Fully functional mimicry of this type has not previously been achieved.

“Put together, these technologies offer a cutting edge advance for the splitting of water into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as the reverse process – the production of an electrical current from the combination of the elemental hydrogen and oxygen to form water,” said Wallace.

“The water-splitting application has been demonstrated in simple ‘proof of concept’ devices within the laboratory. The research teams are currently performing studies to obtain efficiency data and are working towards engineering a prototype device,” Wallace added.