• Question: How long do you think this experiment will take, and how much hydrogen do you think you can produce with just £500?

    Asked by christy to Suze on 13 Jun 2011.
    • Photo: Suze Kundu

      Suze Kundu answered on 13 Jun 2011:

      Hi Christy!

      The experiment so far has come a long way. I’ve managed to patent some of my research, which UCL paid tens of thousands of pounds for (I had no idea it cost that much!), so they obviously think that something is working 😛 It is working in a lab environment so far, and really needs to be scaled up, so there’s a few more years to go before it can be sold to the public for normal use, and there needs to be more work done in the storage of hydrogen, as it is pretty explosive stuff, but it’s safe when it’s stored in the correct way. The last estimate was that it will be about ten years until the technology can be sold, but in sciencey terms, that’s really not a bad turnaround time at all. It’s positively lightning fast!

      Now the money – that’s a slightly tricky question – and potentially one that I could be asked in my PhD verbal exam, so thanks for the heads up! The hidden cost of research is in the lab cost (chemicals, equipment, etc), and analysis (ridiculously expensive toys – tens of thousands of pounds each!), which is where the bulk of the money goes to in research. At the start of this project, £500 wouldn’t have got me more than a couple of season tickets into Uni on the train!

      From where I am now, having established a fair amount of research in the area, £500 could go towards scaling up our set-up. Cost-wise, titanium dioxide is really quite cheap. I add nanoparticles (really tiny little clumps) of gold and silver into the mix, then I stick a layer of this onto various metal sheets. I put some platinum on the back of this to encourage the hydrogen to come out.

      Gold, platinum, silver, I’m a girl of expensive taste! However, the amounts used are very small, and they don’t get used up, so once they are in there, the set-up is really strong, and would last for ages. Titanium dioxide is the bulk material, and as it’s cheap, the costs are kept down, which is great when you compare it to the cost of solar panels and batteries (loads of money). The actual equipment is made with quartz and some nice, shiny steel – we may as well keep it pretty after adding all of those lovely shiny metals!

      In terms of the amount of hydrogen that could be produced, it is hard to tell. On the scale that we’ve made our little production cell, it’s not a huge amount, but is obviously dependent on the amount of water that is available in our set-up. The water is held in a container, so this would need to be re-filled every now and again. From 40ml of ‘water’ (what we call a sacrificial solution, which is normal water, with some solvents dissolved in it to make the process go faster in the short term, to compare different samples quickly – ‘sacrificial’ makes it sound awful, but it just means that it sacrifices or donates electrons and protons into the system), the hydrogen measured is in the micromole level. A mole is pretty big, and so it doesn’t sound very impressive, but once the system is scaled up, it will be really promising! We’ve seen bubbles of gas coming off some of the samples in my group, so that’s all looking great!

      If you want some more specific answers aout the amount of hydrogen we can produce, give me another shout, and I’ll do some sums for you!