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Running the world on renewable energy is simple, in principle: Harvest solar and wind energy, and use any extra to power devices called electrolyzers that split water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen gas. Hydrogen (H2) can serve as a fuel; it is also a staple of the chemical industry. The trouble is that current electrolyzers are costly, requiring either expensive catalysts or pricey metal housings. Now, researchers report combining the best of both approaches to make a version that needs only cheap materials.

“I consider this a great breakthrough,” says Hui Xu, a chemical engineer at Giner Inc., an electrochemistry company. Xu says he and his colleagues presented similar results at a Department of Energy meeting last year, but have not yet published them. Their work and another team’s new device, described this week in Nature Energy, could bolster the global embrace of renewable energy if the new electrolyzers prove to be cheap and stable during many years of operation. “We are on the cusp of getting that done,” says Yushan Yan, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware, Newark, who is working on similar technology. A handful of small companies, including one he founded, have formed to commercialize it.

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Category: Science