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Magnetism gives water splitting a big boost

By Gerald Ondrey |

In a paper published last month in Nature Energy, scientists from the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonie (ICIQ; Tarragona, Spain; www.iciq.org) describe how, for the first time, a magnet has been used to directly enhance the production of hydrogen in alkaline water electrolyzers. “The simplicity of the discovery opens new opportunities to implement magnetic enhancement in water splitting,” says Felipe A. Garcés-Pineda, first author of the paper. “Furthermore, the low cost of the technology makes it suitable for industrial applications,” he says.

The research shows how the presence of an external magnetic field — induced by approaching a neodymium magnet to the electrolyzer — spurs the electrocatalytic activity on the anode, in some cases, increasing the H2 production two-fold. The scientists report that the magnetic field directly affects the reaction pathway by allowing for spin conservation of the active catalyst, which in turn favors parallel spin alignment of the oxygen atoms during the reaction. This overall spin polarization, due to the external magnetic field, improves the efficiency of the process. “This demonstrates that there is a lot to learn from the intimate reaction mechanisms taking place on electrocatalysts and opens new ways to overcome the limitations of state-of-the-art systems,” says Núria López, ICIQ group leader and co-author of the article.

The researchers studied a variety of catalysts in identical working conditions and report the catalytic activity enhancement is proportional to the magnetic nature of the catalysts used to drive the water-splitting reaction. NiZnFe4Ox, a highly magnetic ferrite, exhibited the biggest enhancing effect when presented with a magnetic field. This ferrite also possesses the advantage of being able to magnetically attach itself to a nickel metal support — curbing the need to use binders to attach catalysts to a physical support. 

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