Scientists have found a cheaper way to construct electrodes for hydrogen fuel while engineers fabricate a more efficient combination of a battery and solar panel.
The first discovery published in the Journal Angewandte Chemie involves a process of chemical engineering called electrolysis that uses electricity to split water in to hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen can then be used for clean burning fuel while the oxygen could potentially be utilized for life support. With that being said cheap, efficient electrolysis has just as much implications in outer space as it does down here on Earth.
In fact electrolysis may very well be more important in outer space due to the abundance of water ice and future plans to extend our economy in to the domain of low earth orbit. It could play a crucial role in erecting fuel depots for space colonization and further expansion towards Mars or beyond the asteroid belt. Furthermore all these new asteroid mining corporations cropping up over the past few years initially intend to mine comets for ice-water in order to split in to fuel for satellites orbiting the Earth.
So given the importance of electrolysis in the new and emerging outer space economy not only does cheaper electrodes mean easier production of clean fuel but it also means cheaper travel throughout space.
So how does it work?
Well electrolyzers are used to contain water that is split in to hydrogen and oxygen using electrodes that channel electricity in to the liquid.
The most stable compound used to create an electrode is iridium oxide. Unfortunately it is one of the rarest compounds on Earth. So it’s a good thing that researchers from the University of Illinois discovered a more abundant alternative
By adding perchloric acid as a catalyst to support this new compound “yttrium ruthenate” researchers were able to quicken electro-chemical reactions that splits water in to hydrogen and oxygen respectively. Heat is also vital ingredient, so given a little time to “bake” the new substance and you have yourself some Hydrogen fuel.
“The material became more porous and also had a new crystalline structure, different from all the solid catalysts we made before,”
“Because of the increased activity it promotes, a porous structure is highly desirable when it comes electrocatalysts,” Yang said. “These pores can be produced synthetically with nanometer-sized templates and substances for making ceramics; however, those can’t hold up under the high-temperature conditions needed for making high-quality solid catalysts.”
It turns out that the new material called”pyrochlore oxide of yttrium ruthenate” is more proficient at splitting water due to it’s microscopic structure which is 3 times more porous than commercial ruthenium oxide.
“It was surprising to find that the acid we chose as a catalyst for this reaction turned out to improve the structure of the material used for the electrodes,” Yang said. “This realization was fortuitous and quite valuable for us.”
Now the team needs to replicate their findings at a larger scale.
“Stability of the electrodes in acid will always be a problem, but we feel that we have come up with something new and different when compared with other work in this area,” Yang said. “This type of research will be quite impactful regarding hydrogen generation for sustainable energy in the future.”
Another innovation by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and King Abdullah University combine solar panels with batteries to eliminate grid dependence and needless complications involved with storing solar energy.
The new device, called a solar flow battery (SFB) has broken previous efficiency records for solar rechargeable batteries. Furthermore, at 14.1 percent efficiency they are now 8 times more powerful then older prototypes. SFBs are quickly approaching the efficiency level of most contemporary solar panels at 14-17 percent.
“We believe we could eventually get to 25% efficiency using emerging solar materials and new electrochemistry,” Jin told Cell Press.
Solar flow batteries are extremely dynamic. You can charge it through the power grid or with sunlight just like an ordinary solar panel. On top of that you can also plug in your appliances and power them with solar energy in real time.
“These integrated solar flow batteries will be especially suitable as distributed and stand-alone solar energy conversion and storage systems in remote locations and enable practical off-grid electrification,” Jin explained.
With that being said this new technology could have significant applications in disaster relief, and in the case of a power outage may in fact mean the difference between life and death. Even in outer space, reducing as many steps to harvesting energy as possible is of course ideal for desolate locations.
Right now they are too expensive for ordinary consumers, however given some time to streamline production and they should become more affordable like every other new and emerging technology.