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Hydrogen Hopes Revived....NYTimes August 1, 2008



Storing energy is a crucial but expensive component of plans to turn intermittent sources of energy, like wind and sun, into reliable replacements for coal and natural gas. But two new scientific papers show progress in materials science and chemistry that could cut the cost.
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The advances apply to the process of converting electricity into hydrogen for storage and then converting the hydrogen back to electricity when needed. The first half is done in an electrolyzer, which splits a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen, and the second half in a fuel cell, which puts them back together.

Such a process would make a power system based on sources like sun and wind more reliable because it could be counted on regardless of weather or hour.

Splitting a water molecule is an experiment familiar to generations of high school chemistry students. In common industrial practice, it involves a container with water at a very high pH and a base like lye. The container is sealed to keep out contaminants like carbon dioxide, which is present in the atmosphere. But in one paper scheduled for publication in the journal Science on Friday, two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describe a technique that works at ambient temperatures and pressures in ordinary water.

"Trees don't grow in base; they grow in regular water," said one of the researchers, Daniel G. Nocera, a professor of energy at the institute, who compared the process to photosynthesis, nature's way of storing energy by separating hydrogen and oxygen.

Because the conditions are benign and the chemistry works at a small scale, Dr. Nocera said, this electrolyzer could be incorporated into a solar cell, which would turn out hydrogen rather than electricity.

Dr. Nocera worked with a postdoctoral fellow, Matthew W. Kanan.

The system could use saltwater. When the hydrogen and oxygen recombine in the fuel cell, the result is pure water, raising the possibility that the technology could be used for desalination.

The second article in Science describes building a fuel cell without a platinum catalyst. Fuel cells are declining in price, but the price of the platinum alone exceeds the price of an internal combustion engine of the same power, according to a paper by a group from the Australian Center for Electromaterials Science at Monash University.

The group developed porous polymer material for use as an electrode that gives the same performance as platinum.