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This image shows the new, efficient way to pull pure oxygen from water.
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Image Courtesy of MIT/NSF

Water Refineries?
News story originally written on August 8, 2008

Two scientists have discovered a simple and inexpensive way to obtain pure oxygen from water using a small amount of electricity. This discovery may become an important new green-energy source.

Daniel Nocera, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a graduate student named Matthew Kanan made this discovery in a chemistry lab. To produce oxygen, they added a few chemicals (cobalt and phosphate) to neutral water and then inserted a conductive-glass electrode. As soon as they applied a current, a dark film began to form on the electrode from which tiny pockets of oxygen began to appear, eventually building into a stream of bubbles.

After analyzing the electrode, Nocera and Kanan concluded that a cobalt-phosphate mixture, possibly combined with phosphate, had deposited as a film. They believe the film is what helps break apart the water molecules to create oxygen gas. The protons (hydrogen nuclei) released from the process pick up electrons and convert back into hydrogen at a partner electrode.

Oxygen and hydrogen are energy-rich fuels. This new technique could be a cheap energy source for people to use when the Sun goes down. While this might not be available as a home-based energy source for about ten more years, this discovery is a major step forward.

Last modified August 8, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

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