Splitting Water on a AAA Battery

Credit: Mark Shwartz/Stanford Precourt Institut for Energy

Credit: Mark Shwartz/Stanford Precourt Institut for Energy

A graduate student at Stanford may have made a break-through in reducing the costs of electrolysis in splitting water into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen.

According to a report in phys.org, the new process uses common materials and a fraction of the input electrical power employed in conventional techniques:

“Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.”

While the article primarily focuses on the implications for hydrogen fuel cell powered automobiles, if the new process is scalable, it could have profound implications for planetary exploration and settlement as well, giving credence to “space mining” business plans by companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. And while Mars already offers its own options for in-situ resource development in the form of atmospheric CO2,  readily available hydrogen derived from water ice would present an expanded range of opportunities.

Viewed in the same context, a bit further out in the main asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres looms like a giant fueling station on the way to the outer planets. Who knows, maybe the venerable and very reusable cryogenic RL-10 engine which once powered the DC-X, and is currently found in the Atlas V, Delta IV and before long, the Space Launch System, may have a much longer future than anyone would expect.

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