How to Generate Hydrogen by Splitting Water

Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe. It fuels the starts that light the nightsky. Hydrogen will also power the future of mankind as it is already used as car fuel and within this century even in fusion reactors.

As most of you know, a water molecule consists of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. So in order to get hydrogen, it is needed to split the water molecule. This can be done for example electrochemically where an electrical potential is applied between electrodes in a salt water. For a home experiment one can simply put a 9 V battery into salt water and watch how hydrogen bubbles start to form at the cathode. At the same time oxygen is generated at the anode but since the anode on the battery is usually made of steel, it will quickly corrode as it reacts with chlorine and oxygen. This causes the salt water to go brown. So instead, you may want to use electrodes instead that are connected to an external power source. If a DC voltage is used then especially the anode needs to be made from a chemically inert conductive material such as platinum which doesnt oxidize. At this anode oxygen gas can be collected. At the same time hydrogen gas is generated at the cathode and can also be collected. If DC voltage is used then the electrode at cathodic potentials will not corrode very quickly as oxidation cannot occur. However hydrogen damage may eventually destroy the electrode.

Hydrogen damage occurs when the small atomic hydrogen generated at the cathode moves into pores and cracks inside the electrode and combines with other hydrogen atom to form molecular hydrogen. The molecular hydrogen however is too large to diffuse through metal and starts building up inside the sealed crack or pore and pressure increases until it splits the material.

In order to produce as much gas as possible, the surface area of electrodes needs to be increased. Make the electrodes rough, multilayered or highly porous for greater surface area.

If AC voltage is used to split water, then corrosion is suppressed and for some time even stainless steel can be used as both electrodes.


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