The Sietch

A community of friends changing the world for the better

Bustin up water, yo!

You have probably heard of the upcoming "hydrogen economy", and asked yourself, "hey what's all the fuss about". What everyone is talking about is just how clean hydrogen is as a fuel. Hydrogen produces only water vapor and oxygen when it is burned/used in a fuel cell. The only problem is because hydrogen is the lightest of all elements it will only hang out in nature attached to other elements. So lets learn how to make our own hydrogen at home.

Materials needed:


It took me a couple of weeks to track down an old battery (you could just go buy one but why waste the cash when they are free at the dump), the solar panel took me about 2 hours to build, but the project itself only took about 20 minutes to complete.


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Make your own hydrogen

The first thing we need to know about water is what it is made of.Most people know that water is H20. But few stop to think what this means, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Water is mostly hydrogen. This is good for us because we are going to be busting it up with a little electricity. What we are going to do is called electrolyzing the water. When we send electricity though water is gives the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen enough energy that they break free from each other and shoot out of the water (the hydrogen and oxygen gas is less dense than water so it shoots to the top). So lets get to walloping on that water.

The first step is to figure out what kind of power source you are going to use. In the most technical terms you could use power out of the outlet for this. Just get a cheap extension cord and cut the end off and shove both wires into water. This however is A VERY BAD IDEA. There is possibly nothing more foolish than to stick something plugged into the wall into water. So to make this project much safer we are going to use one of two power supplies.

The first option is to use a rechargeable 9-volt battery. 9 volts is more than enough to break up water, and because the battery is rechargeable we can just keep using it over and over. However it can take several hours to recharge a battery and you will only get about 15 minutes of useable power from one.

So for this reason I am going to use solar panels. I built a 12-volt solar array.

For instructions on how to make a solar array see the projects page. Hook up two wires to your array, one on the positive lead and one on the negative lead. When you electrolyze water you just stick two wires into the water and the bubbles form. The more surface area you get touching the water the more bubbles will form. That is why we are going to use carbon rods instead of just plain wires. Most people don't have carbon rods just laying around the house (you can use pencil lead but it is hard to get out of the wood, and is not as pure as the ones we are going to use) To get carbon rods, we need an old lantern battery.

I am sure many of you have one of these sitting around the house right now, just begging you to use it for something other than land fill. First thing we need to do is open the top. Not to worry old carbon-zinc batteries like this do not have acid inside that will splash out and hurt you. As you will see soon.

As you can see there are four cute little canisters in there. A lantern battery is six volts. Each of these little guys provides 1.5 volts. For a total of six. Cut the red and blue wire connecting the canisters to the top. And you will have four canisters.

Leave the little wires on the top as they will come in handy later for connecting your carbon rod to your power source. Next we need to open up the canisters. Now if you are overly concerned with chemical stuff this is the time to put some rubber gloves on. But when you cut the top of the canisters off (I just used some wire cutters) you will see hard black clay like goo, wrapped in some kind of paper, and inside that you will find your carbon rod. Here is what it looks like at each stage with the rod on the left.

Don't be alarmed when you start removing the black goo, it will be messy and flake all over the place. Be sure to have a bag or box to put all the insides in. I did this whole part of the project outside to avoid mess. Your hands will be covered with black stuff when you are done so take a hand wash break.

You can remove the plastic "necklace" that is still on your rod (leave the little copper "hat"). Then scrape all the goo off of it with a knife or x-acto blade. Then take a bit of sandpaper and rub the rod down to make it all nice and smooth. When you are done you will see that you have what is in essence four large pencil leads (made of carbon not lead)

The rods are really very cool, you can draw with them like a pencil but lets save them for busting up that water (yo). Strip the ends of the wires on your rods so you can attach them to your power source. If you are using the battery attach the wires right to the battery (be careful that you do not attach a wire accross the top of your battery, or let the positive and negative wires tuch each other as it can heat up and burn), then attach them to the rods. If you are using the solar array attach the wires from the leads to the rods.

Here you can see we have moved outside on a nice sunny day, and our rods are all attached. Lay your solar array some place it will get lots of sun and you are ready to go. Get a bowl of water, and add some salt to it. The salt makes the water more conductive making more of our electrons bust up more water molecules. Water is mostly hydrogen so you will see that one of your rods makes a lot more bubbles than the other. The one that makes more is hydrogen. You can test it by holding a lit match over the water with the hydrogen bubbles. They will burn, this is safe so don't worry about making an h-bomb or anything. They will just flare up a bit.

The rod above is making oxygen, the one on the bottom hydrogen. Notice that more hydrogen comes out (h TWO O hence more hydrogen in water) You can even collect the hydrogen if you want. I used a tube with a balloon on the end.

If you do collect the hydrogen there are a couple of safety tips you need to know. If you put the rods close together and collect bubbles from each, you will be collecting the perfect explosive gas mix. Oxygen and hydrogen gas when mixed together is very flammable so be careful. Also if you put a lot of salt in the water there is the possibility you might create a bit of chlorine gas, this is poison and shouldn't be breathed in, be sure to do your experiment in a well ventilated area if you are using a solar array this will be outside so you are ok.

If you do this experiment in bubble soap you can create hydrogen bubbles. I was unable to do this as I didn't have any bubble soap laying around. You are able to light the bubbles on fire and make a VERY loud noise. This was done for me in science class once and it shook the room. It was loud but harmless as hydrogen burns very fast and cleanly (leaving only water vapor and oxygen)

The hydrogen created by this method is pure enough to use for a lot of fun experiments, it is possible to let this process run all day long and collect a large amount of hydrogen. Have fun making your own hydrogen, I did. It was very fun to see how much gas comes out of just plain water. It is also fun to put your hands in front of the solar array and watch the output of the gas go down. Try it for yourself.