New Catalyst Turns Seawater in Hydrogen for Fuel Cells


Sea Water Fuel Cell

A team of researchers at Australia’s University of Wollongong have found a way to separate the “H” from sea water’s H2O, producing a virtually unlimited source of the hydrogen necessary to power the hydrogen fuel cells that many people believe will, ultimately, replace petroleum gasoline.

These scientists, led by Associate Professor Jun Chen and Professor Gerry Swiegers, have produced an artificial chlorophyll on a conductive plastic film that acts as a catalyst to begin splitting water. They claim that their catalyst is so efficient, in fact, that they can produce enough hydrogen to power an average-sized home and an electric car from a mere 5 liters of sea water.

If that’s even halfway true, it could spark a revolutionary shift in the way the general public views alternative fuels and hilariously upset the oil economies of Canada and the Middle East.

The system we designed, including the materials, gives us the opportunity to design various devices and applications using sea water as a water-splitting source. The flexible nature of the material also provides the possibility to build portable hydrogen-producing devices.

Of course, conventional sea-water catalysts have a byproduct that is, arguably, even worse than the harmful particulate emissions from petroleum products: chlorine!

These Australians, though, are claiming that their system, which uses an artificial chlorophyll on a conductive plastic film, has that problem neatly handled.

Sounds good to me. Let’s hope this hydrogen-farming technology is as much of a breakthrough as it sounds!


Source | Photos: Inhabitat.

About the Author

I’ve been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.

  • Marko Germani

    Come on, the sentence “can produce enough hydrogen to power an average-sized home and an electric car from a mere 5 liters of sea water.” is absolutely pointless. The problem is how much energy you need to do that, not how much water! And no, catalysts do not reduce the amount of energy needed, they only act on the speed of the reaction.

    Really the worst article since I’m following you.

    • Jo Borras

      1. the amount of energy required to extract hydrogen from seawater goes up with the volume of sea water required.

      2. 5 liters is a much lower amount of water required to extract sufficient hydrogen than the usual methods of electrolysis (, which is what you seem to be thinking of.

      3. the system shown here is powered by an artificial chlorophyll (in the article) on a conductive plastic film (also in the article).

      4. chlorophyll produces energy through photosynthesis ( so it’s pulling solar energy to fuel the electrolysis and generate the hydrogen needed to power homes and cars without a need to put extra energy into it.

      5. the next time I write an article that you don’t understand, maybe you should assume you have no idea what you’re talking about, and use that “internet” thing you seem to have recently discovered to figure out what the words you don’t understand mean.

      6. follow someone else.

      :: drops mic, walks off stage ::

      • MB

        I was in the process of writing up a very thorough response to you, Jo, when I realized it isn’t my job to teach you the science which you seem to have failed to learn thus far. You have a very pronounced misunderstanding of almost everything stated here, and given the attitude you seem to take in the face of criticism, a well-constructed and neutral response on my part would almost certainly be a waste of my time. I only hope you will reconsider, and try to actually learn about these things for the future; I care very much about the topic at hand, and bad science writing never helps to move things in a positive direction.

        • Jo Borras

          That’s not criticism. Someone coming in and saying “That math is wrong, here is the correct math …” is criticism and correction. Someone saying “that doesn’t make sense” when the problem obviously stems from a lack of reading comprehension is something else.

          I’d love to see some numbers, though. Show your work. Be thorough, be prepared to face down the University’s math (which is available for scrutiny), and be definitely do NOT stay neutral on a topic you care about (How could you, anyway!?) and you’ll have an audience.

          Bitch and kvetch about taking some kind of bullshit moral high-road, though, and I’ll just call you a wuss and assume your math was faulty the whole time.


          • Marko Germani

            An author claiming the readers have reading comprehension problems is already something worth noting.

            However, you want the numbers? Here they are.

            5 liters of water contain 0,56 kg of hydrogen (H2, not H, as you wrote, you don’t want to mess with atomic hydrogen) and that is the most hydrogen you can get out of it, no matter the process involved.

            To obtain it you have to split the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen. It takes you at least 22 kWh of energy (more than that, because of the second principle), no matter what “catalysts” you use. That’s a physical limit. And you’ll get less than 22 kWh once you burn them up together again (for comparison, the battery pack of the Leaf is 16 kWh). How do you reap these 22 kWh is your free choice. Want solar? Go for it. But whatever the source of energy, that amount of water will produce that amount of hydrogen and will require (at least) that amount of energy. So your sentence “energy required to extract hydrogen from seawater goes up with the volume of sea water required” has simply no sense. Energy required will be higher than the theoretical amount for a whole bunch of reasons, like ohmic resistance or finite temperature differences in heat exchangers etc etc, (so called “irreversibilities”) but the amount of water involved in the process has little or no influence at all, what counts is the water actually split.

            So, where is your biggest mistake? The fact is that you put the accent on efficiency: “They claim that their catalyst is so efficient, in fact, that they can produce enough hydrogen to power an average-sized home and an electric car from a mere 5 liters of sea water.”

            That’s a tautology. If 22 kWh are enough, yes. But this holds true with hydrogen produced in any way.

            One thing that should have raised your attention is the word “catalyst”. A catalyst has no influence whatsoever on the energy balance of a reaction. A catalyst can only act on the speed of a reaction. *The real news here is that the catalyst allows splitting sea water.* Sea water was, up to now, not used for hydrogen production because, for a matter of oxidation potentials, instead of oxidizing the oxygen of the H2O molecule, nature prefers to use the available current to take two Cl- ions together. But, using a catalyst, like these scientists did, it is possible to slow the reaction of chlorine so much that you get oxygen instead. That was the core of the news. Efficiency and chlorophyll have nearly nothing to do with it.

            And here you have the original paper: do you find any mention of efficiency in the abstract?

            And, by the way, light is not used to generate the energy of the reaction but to activate the catalyst. In other words, no light => you still get chlorine. And in any case, you have to find those 22 kWh somewhere.

          • Marko Germani

            >but you claim it is not anymore or less efficient


            > but then you go on to use over 50 words

            You are right: I cannot hope to explain the second principle of thermodynamics in 50 words. Let’s try this way:

            theoretical energy needed for 0,56 kg of hydrogen: 22 kWh (first TD principle – involved technique does not matter).

            Energy needed to *actually* get 0,56 kg of hydrogen: surely MORE than 22 kWh (some techniques will be better, some worse).

            Energy recovered when using the 0,56 kg of hydrogen: surely LESS than 22 kWh (again, depending on the technique used, ICE, fuel cell or whatever)

            Now: is this new discovery more efficient than others in getting the hydrogen, i.e. does it go nearer to the theoretical (22 kWh) / (0,56 kg hydrogen) ratio? In the abstract there is no mention about it.

            >As for the 5liters it is a tangible measure of hydrogen

            That’s not the point. 5 liters of water will give you 0,56 kg of hydrogen, no matter the chosen technique/process. ANY process that splits 5 liters of water will give you enough energy to power your home and your car (for one day). It’s the law of mass conservation.

            Go read the abstract of the research, ask a chemistry professor, call the scientists involved, do whatever you want to check out if efficiency has something to do with this new catalyst or if this catalyst changes the amount of water needed to obtain a given amount of hydrogen.

            I’ll be fine whatever you decide to do.

          • T Adkins

            Thanks for taking the time to answer. I am familiar with thermal dynamics but thanks for the refresh.

            And thanks for addressing Jo’s 1st point in his 1st reply…..”1. the amount of energy required to extract hydrogen from seawater goes up with the volume of sea water required”… where you claim it…..”has simply no sense.” But now you have said he is correct no less than three times.

          • Donn

            Technically, Jo never claimed how long the average sized home or electric vehicle could be powered by the 5 liters of sea water. His claim that the “catalyst” is efficient enough to produce hydrogen to power those items for any period of time is simply stating that the process can work, i.e. the efficiency is higher than 0%. These claims are a pathetic waste of time when thoroughly analyzed.

      • Andrew Stuart Jonson Daniels

        You should drop #5, #6 it reflects badly on you, to insult your commmentors

    • Robert_13

      You seem to have failed to notice that they also mentioned that this process is highly efficient. You have interpreted the additional information as the basis for the conclusion that this process is efficient. That may be only the way a naive writer has expressed it. Anyone scientifically literate knows how confused some science writers can get regarding scientific details.

      It is well known that some catalytic processes involving hydrogen production not only increase the speed of the reaction, but also increase the efficiency with which energy input produces hydrogen. This is a fundamentally different scenario from a purely chemical reaction. Your statement takes into account only the chemical side of this situation, which says nothing at all about the input energy versus hydrogen output.

  • UncleB

    Slowly but surely alternate fuels are coming into play. no sudden miracle fuel, no obvious winner, just a long slow bundle of adaptations including super insulations, and many things electric in nature. Meanwhile, oil approaches $100.00 bbl as the purchasing power of the U.S.Dollar falls and the employment situation moves very slowly in a positive direction, but wages remain stagnant and not enough to re-instate inefficient gasoline engines as king of the road.
    Expect even this discovery to fill many stop-gap, niche type market spots as the inertia of the status quo carries even expensive gasoline forward.
    Imagine the potential if this is Solar powered! Warm sea shores become H2 sources, converters to Methane, and bottled fuel in standard propane bottles that store indefinitely – we have a Solar heat storage system! H2 alone is near impossible to store but can be used to make methane like gases that are less explosive, easy to handle as propane.

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  • Andrew Stuart Jonson Daniels

    I’m quite skeptical of this claim, does it require volumes of energy or do you just magically split tonnes of water into hydrogen? Does not seem credible

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