Rocket Fuel Formula: Improving Electrolysis Through Better Catalysts

Burning Water Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Burning Water
Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

A slew of recent discoveries point to our solar system being a much wetter place than we once thought it was. From permanently shadowed ice on the Moon, to seasonal Recurrent Slope Linea evidence on Mars, and subsurface oceans on outer planet moons, space offers an abundant supply of life’s most vital element. Melting a little ice for drinking water is once thing, but when it comes to electrolysis; separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms for other uses, namely high ISP rocket fuel, the challenge becomes a bit more daunting.

Russian news agency Tass reports on advances in developing new catalysts which could make the process quite a bit more manageable:

“Sloltech Institute of Science and Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have report discovery of a new catalyst that significantly improves the efficiency of water electrolysis in alkaline conditions. The electrolysis of water to oxygen and hydrogen is a reaction that is crucial to enabling emerging renewable energy technologies for the production of hydrogen. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Although more work needs to be done to further increase the performance of water electrolysis catalysts, the work provides a deeper mechanistic understanding of the chemistry of active catalysts. The work also clarifies materials design strategies to accelerate the discovery of additional Earth abundant non-precious metal oxide catalysts”, says the press release.

“If we could develop catalysts made with Earth abundant materials that could reversibly and efficiently electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, we could have affordable hydrogen generation from renewables; and with that the possibility of electric cars that run on water with ranges similar to gas powered cars,” said graduate student and lead author of the study Tyler Mefford. “To develop these catalysts, we need to understand at the atomic level how these processes proceed and what factors of the catalysts influence their performance.”

To overcome the limitations of current materials, the team led by Prof. Keith Stevenson, synthesized a series of cobalt based perovskite oxide catalysts where the properties of the materials could be controllably modified by the substitution of the element strontium into the catalyst structure. Through collaborations with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Prof. Alexei Kolpak) and the Skolkovo Institute of Technology (Prof. Artem Abakumov), the team was able to precisely measure the surface and bulk properties of the catalysts and model how the alkaline water electrolysis reaction proceeds based on these insights.”

Posted in: Space Settlement

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