Australian Researchers Achieve Efficient Artificial Photosynthesis With Nickel Catalyst

A team of researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia have reported progress in developing an artificial photosynthesis system that uses solar power to create hydrogen via electrolysis using a nickel catalyst.

In an article published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science (abstract only available at the link), the scientists report that they have been able to achieve efficiencies of up to 22 per cent using a variety of sources of water, including river water.

Lead researcher Doug Macfarlane, in an interview with Australia’s ABC news, explained the significance of these latest experiments.

DOUG MACFARLANE: We’ve chosen a very, very highly efficient solar cell, then we run it into what is a relatively standard water-electrolysis cell, so something that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen and it’s the hydrogen that we’re interested in; that’s our energy store that we can use in various ways as a fuel.

ASHLEY HALL: And so the catalyst you’re using here is nickel. Why has that proven to be such a good catalyst?

DOUG MACFARLANE: Well in fact there are many catalysts that are considerably more sophisticated than nickel and often involving obscure or very expensive precious metals. So nickel is a rather ordinary catalyst in many respects, expect for one thing which is that it’s cheap.

It’s an inexpensive metal and it’s very, very – it produces a very, very stable action in its water electrolosis cell. So it’s an ideal choice, purely and simply, because of the cost.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent decades about moving into the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen as a fuel is clean-burning, but it takes a lot of energy to produce it in quantities that would make it useful as a fuel. It is also difficult to store, since it is so light. The system described here does not make storage any easier, but a cheap way to produce hydrogen using just sunlight, water, and a cheap abundant catalyst like nickel, sounds like an important breakthrough for hydrogen production.

Still, if LENR comes online in the near future, I’m not sure that the hydrogen economy will still be considered as attractive as it is currently. For hydrogen to become a ubiquitous fuel, in addition to finding a cheap way to produce it, would require developing a vast infrastructure for hydrogen storage and delivery — with many technical and safety considerations required.