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  • A Big Breakthrough

    Posted by Shannon Love on August 1st, 2008 (All posts by )

    [See update at end]

    Instapundit links to an EEtimes story that claims that MIT researchers have created a catalyst that can electrolyze water at 100% efficiency, meaning that 100% of the electricity that goes across the electrodes goes into breaking the bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the water. 

    If this pans out, this is big, I am talking discovery of nuclear fission big. For one thing, it means the end to concerns about anthropogenic global warming. 

    The MIT breakthrough is the equivalent of someone finding the means to improve a car’s miles-per-gallon rating from 30 to 150. 

    It’s big!

    Solar and wind power will remain toy energy sources until such a time as we can efficiently store the energy they produce and release it on demand. A power source unavailable half the day simply cannot power our civilization. The ability to electrolyze water at 100% efficiency would make storing solar power in the form of hydrogen safe. 

    This represents a massive breakthrough because previously, the record for electrolysis efficiency stood at 18%. By the time you ended up with the overhead of storing hydrogen and then “burning” it in the fuel cell (or worse, an internal-combustion engine or boiler) you only got 1/3 to 1/4 of the electricity back out. Those numbers translated to a setup wherein to get 100w out of the system you needed to generate 2000w+ on the solar panels. 

    With a 100% efficiency, to get 100w out you would only need 200 to 300 watts coming out of the solar panels. You would need only a tenth of the solar panels you currently need!

    Its big!

    Most importantly, you can store the energy almost indefinitely and ship it to anywhere you need it. 

    Having cheap hydrogen opens up a world of possibilities. You can mix the hydrogen with carbon from biomass or even CO2 in the atmosphere to make carbon-neutral methane (natural gas) which can be put into existing pipelines. Fleet vehicles can burn natural gas with only minor and well understood and long used modifications. Conventional power plants could practically store electricity as hydrogen during off-peak hours. 

    Its big!

    We could actually see vast energy farms out in the deserts that generated hydrogen to be piped up north or, for that matter, shipped anywhere in the world. Chad might become the new Saudi Arabia. 

    This one breakthrough could so radically change our energy picture that it would make all our concerns about anthropogenic global warming mute. Within 20 years we could see the carbon emissions of the developed world drop to nearly zero, far beyond the expectations of even the most radical environmentalist. All our inconvenient concerns gone in a poof. 

    Did I mention this is a really, really, really big breakthrough?

    Even if they only get half of what they claim under real-world conditions, 50% electrolysis efficiency is enough to make a huge impact on our electricity generation. 

    This is big!

    [update: (activate Emily Litella mode) Never mind. The efficiency I was thinking of was the Faraday efficiency. It  is trivial to reach a Faraday efficiency of 100% in the case of water. This Popular Science article explains the the breakthrough has more to do with safety and cost of the reagents than it does with the actual conversion rate. *Sigh* sorry for getting over excited.]


    16 Responses to “A Big Breakthrough”

    1. ArtD0dger Says:

      Yes, this could be big, but the article is written in a rather frustrating and small-minded way. If I understand it correctly, the process catalyzes the electrolysis of water by an electric current, and thus should not limited to being driven by photovoltaic cells. If this is the case, it could just as well be used with any electrical current source, permitting, for example, nasty-‘ol nuclear plants to generate hydrogen for applications that are off the grid (e.g., transportation). Yet the hype about this being a “solar” technology permeates the whole article, including the title.

    2. Shannon Love Says:


      Yes, I agree the emphasis on solar power is annoying. Being able to store electricity as hydrogen would be a big boost to all electricity production. For example, long distance electricity transmission is theoretically more efficient using hydrogen gas lines.

    3. Ann Says:

      Last time I checked, no one has been able to get the votes together to repeal the laws of Thermodynamics.

      Fundamental to the laws is that it is an impossibility to get as much energy out of a system than you put in. Entropy increases.

      Regardless of the system, there must be power loss. I would guess substantially more than a tiny bit–in other words, no way this works at 100%.

      “Entropy increases, that’s the essence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and I’ve never heard a truer word spoken” — The Doctor (#4).

    4. Paul Says:

      concerns about anthropogenic global warming mute.moot

      It could also mute the people concerned with AGW. So, it’s all good.

    5. fred lapides Says:

      If Glenn posts it it must be True and Good and we need not ask sophomoric questions.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      If Glenn posts it it must be True and Good and we need not ask sophomoric questions.

      Now I get it. You have sworn a solemn oath to use every known argumentative fallacy in your blog comments, haven’t you?

    7. fred lapides Says:

      I have great respect for Instapundit and from time to time he writes me and I him. That item: I had posted it early this morning at my site…but you must be over 18 to visit the site.

    8. Jonathan Says:


    9. Shannon Love Says:


      Regardless of the system, there must be power loss. I would guess substantially more than a tiny bit–in other words, no way this works at 100%.

      Yes and no. I presume that the 100% efficiency applies to the actual electrolysis. IIRC, the efficiency of electrolysis is measured by a ratio between number of water molecules lysed and the theoretical largest number of water molecules that a given unit of electricity could split.

      The total system has losses of course, the wires, the fuel cells etc but if you can approach very close to the theoretical optimum for electrolysis then you can call it 100% for public consumption.

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      …but you must be over 18 to visit the site.

      Holy crap, Fred’s a pornographer! This explains so much. Or rather I hope it does because otherwise I cannot make heads or tales of it.

    11. Bob Hawkins Says:

      As always, I won’t take this seriously until I see environmentalists protesting against it.

    12. Robert Schwartz Says:

      I haven’t the vaguest idea of what the claim of almost 100% efficiency is supposed to mean in the context of electrolysis. Clearly, it does not mean that you can get final products out of the process that contain more energy than you put into the process. That being the case, the real impact of this claim is minimal. It does not change the fact that the sun only shines half the time.

      Furthermore, there must be energy losses in the electrolysis process. Current does not flow through the process without resistance. Resistance produces heat, which is a loss of energy.

      A complete solar energy system would have to be specified with a solar electric generating system (pick your favorite thermal or PV) and a storage system. Say we use this new electrolysis system as part (note PART) of the storage system. We still have to store the hydrogen and oxygen that are produced, and then turn them back into electricity. Pipes, pumps, tanks, generators (take your pick gas turbines or fuel cells) etc. all cost money. I would bet on gas turbines here because the Oxygen does not help fuel cells that much.

      This does not make hydrogen a plausible transportation fuel. The problems of storage and transmission are not affected.

    13. fred lapides Says:

      pornography is all in the groin of the beholder…

    14. david foster Says:

      1)MIT really needs to turn down the hype on these press releases. I don’t know how much of this is the researcher speaking vs the PR guy speaking, but to say that within 10 years grid-supplied electricity will be a thing of the past is to betray a lack of understanding of the realities of large-scale deployment. Heck, there are probably many communities in the US in which it would take 10 years just to get zoning approval (or condo-board approval, or whatever) for putting solar arrays on the roof.

      2)The reconversion of hydrogen to electricity is said to be done by a fuel cell. Unless the catalyst technology also has a big cost reduction impact on fuel cells, then fuel cells are probably too expensive for most applications. Why not just burn the hydrogen in a small turbine, or even a reciprocating engine? When dealing with new technogies, it is generally more practical to avoid making *everything* as different as possible.

      3)I wonder if hydrogen can travel over existing nat gas pipelines.

    15. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “if hydrogen can travel over existing nat gas pipelines.”

      No. it will degrade the metal out of which they are made leading to cracks, thence leaks and fires. Hydrogen is far too nasty and hard to handle to want to store it for long or transport it very far.

      “Why not just burn the hydrogen in a small turbine”

      Or a large one. You are correct, fuel cells are too expensive to use. Furthermore, fuel cells do not, to my knowledge, gain any advantage from using the pure oxygen that derives from the electrolysis. Combustion driven processes would. Using oxygen instead of air for combustion would also limit the production of NOx.

      Actually, I cannot see individual homeowners, or even small businesses using this type of technology. Having a small chemical plant in the basement is not something you would want from a safety view point. Too many parts in the process. The need to store highly flammable products in quantity (gas generated in June, will be needed in December). The expense of the equipment. All point to industrial size operations, that can be staffed with trained personnel, inspected by third parties, and have the size to use larger (and therefore less leaky gas storage surface volume ratio) gas storage vessels, and to build combined cycle generators, which are almost as thermodynamically efficient as fuel cells but are cheaper per kWh.

    16. peter jackson Says:

      I hope you’re right Shannon, I’ve always loved the idea of using hydrogen combustion in vehicles. You pull up to a gas station, pop out the “gas” tank, which resembles a giant Bic lighter—although curiously light—and exchange it for a full one. Of course I’m given credit for the liquid hydrogen that remains in my old tank.

      I once read a description of the smell of the exhaust of hydrogen combustion powered bus as having the aroma of fresh laundry. But of course water vapor is the most potent green house gas. I guess you can’t win them all.