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UH team reports new catalyst efficiently produces hydrogen from seawater; promising for large-scale hydrogen production, desalination

Researchers from the University of Houston have reported a significant breakthrough with a new oxygen evolution reaction catalyst that, combined with a hydrogen evolution reaction catalyst, achieved current densities capable of supporting industrial demands while requiring relatively low voltage to start seawater electrolysis.

Researchers say the device, composed of inexpensive non-noble metal nitrides, manages to avoid many of the obstacles that have limited earlier attempts to inexpensively produce hydrogen or safe drinking water from seawater. The work is described in an open-access paper in Nature Communications.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH and a corresponding author for the paper, said a major obstacle has been the lack of a catalyst that can effectively split seawater to produce hydrogen without also setting free ions of sodium, chlorine, calcium and other components of seawater, which once freed can settle on the catalyst and render it inactive.

Chlorine ions are especially problematic, in part because chlorine requires just slightly higher voltage to free than is needed to free hydrogen.

The researchers tested the catalysts with seawater drawn from Galveston Bay off the Texas coast. Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of physics at UH, said it also would work with wastewater, providing another source of hydrogen from water that is otherwise unusable without costly treatment.

To address the challenges, the researchers designed and synthesized a three-dimensional core-shell oxygen evolution reaction catalyst using transition metal-nitride, with nanoparticles made of a nickle-iron-nitride compound and nickle-molybdenum-nitride nanorods on porous nickle foam.

First author Luo Yu, a postdoctoral researcher at UH who is also affiliated with Central China Normal University, said the new oxygen evolution reaction catalyst was paired with a previously reported hydrogen evolution reaction catalyst of nickle-molybdenum-nitride nanorods.

The catalysts were integrated into a two-electrode alkaline electrolyzer, which can be powered by waste heat via a thermoelectric device or by an AA battery.

Cell voltages required to produce a current density of 100 mA cm-2) ranged from 1.564 V to 1.581 V.

The voltage is significant, Yu said, because while a voltage of at least 1.23 V is required to produce hydrogen, chlorine is produced at a voltage of 1.73 V, meaning the device had to be able to produce meaningful levels of current density with a voltage between the two levels.


  • Yu, L., Zhu, Q., Song, S. et al. (2019] “Non-noble metal-nitride based electrocatalysts for high-performance alkaline seawater electrolysis.” Nat Commun 10, 5106 (2019) doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-13092-7y



Okay, this thing generates H+ ions at the positive electrode (OER side) and turns H+ into H2 at the negative electrode (HER side).

Does it evolve CO2 at the oxygen side, e.g. turning carbonate ion into CO2 and oxygen?  A lot of the notions out there require CO2 for various functions and it would be good to know if cells based on these catalysts can do that too.

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Not this catalyst, though maybe these based on the work of Erwin Reisner at Cambridge UK (here and here).
Possibly renewable Methanol.

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