Stanford researchers have devised a method of splitting hydrogen and oxygen from seawater to generate clean fuel. Their profound invention presents an extraction method for an alternative energy source to fossil fuels and the most efficient electrolysis technique yet.

In the past, water-splitting devices needed to be fed purified water, as negatively charged chloride from saltwater will corrode the positive electrode in the system. Unfortunately, purifying saltwater from the ocean is also incredibly energy intensive, making traditional electrolysis impractical.

But by coating the positive electrode with negatively charged layers of nickel-iron hydroxide and nickel sulfide atop a nickel foam core, the team was able to slow the system’s decay. This allowed for longer periods of electrolysis, producing practical amounts of hydrogen that can then be used as a clean fuel source. Their multi-layered device was able to split water for about 1000 hours compared to the typical 12 hours of traditional devices.

Hongjie Dai and his students tested their device with water from the San Francisco Bay, pointing to California as a place that has a significant lack of clean water on top of high energy consumption. But while they’ve developed this new, proficient method, they say they don’t have any plans to scale the technology, instead leaving that to manufacturers in the industry.

The electrolysis device Hongjie Dai and team built


They also said they could foresee the use of this technology as a method for generating breathable oxygen underwater for submarines or divers, allowing them to stay underwater for longer periods without surfacing.

Though still in its nascent phase, hydrogen fuel-cell cars have become commercially available and many cities have implemented similar engines in their public transport. But these vehicles typically get their hydrogen from natural gas where, once again, the cost is high and investment in filling stations is low.

But with Dai and team’s device, that hydrogen can now be extracted from water straight out of the ocean, eliminating the need to drill down into the ground and produce excessive emissions. And as an added benefit, burning hydrogen to power a vehicle doesn’t produce any carbon emissions, instead it simply discharges water.

But the big question seems to be whether this comes at a time when there’s still enough public interest in the technology as a viable transportation option, especially with the recent explosion of investment in electric vehicles. At least with a hydrogen powered car, you wouldn’t have to wait hours for your electric vehicle to charge, and you’d still be helping the environment.

And then, of course, there’s always the question of whether the oil and gas industry will embrace this technology or try to suppress investment in its development like it tends to do with other alternative fuel sources.

Is the technology just in time or too little too late?

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