A team of researchers from MIT have found a new way of separating water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature which is far more efficient than the currently used method. Currently, the electrolysis process requires a catalyst to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen, and platinum is the most commonly used catalyst. The problem is that platinum costs between $1700 and $2200 per ounce.
The new process uses deposits of cobalt and phospate on top of an electrode made of indium-tin-oxide, materials which are vastly cheaper. In addition, the use of cobalt and phospate allows the process to run under neutral pH conditions and requires relatively little electricity.
The results of this could be fairly exciting and have a wide range of applications, starting with possibly being an enablement technology for a hydrogen-based economy. Of course, the hydrogen economy has a number of other hurdles to overcome (storage and transport come to mind), but as hydrogen and oxygen are also the components of rocket fuel, this could enable less expensive fuel for space launches. What's more, a water refinery on, for example, Mars would be able to create fuel for the return trip to Earth usinig solar power and water from the Martian surface. By not having to transport fuel for the return trip, the trip to Mars would become far more economical.