UCL PhD students from Ucell recreate Nicholson & Carlisle’s splitting of water with battery at Bloomsbury Festival (Video)

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UCL phd students recreate nicholson & carlisle’s splitting of water with battery experiment of 1800.

When I was asked to participate in the 2020 Bloomsbury Festival, with the Friends of St George’s Gardens, I was delighted to have an opportunity to spread the word about William Nicholson (1753-1815) and his interesting life.

I was especially happy when the FoSGG team proposed hiring an actor to play Mr Nicholson, and had great fun writing the script … up to the point when Nicholson’s interests turned to science.

It was easy to paint a vivid picture of life at sea with the East India Company, the theatrical shenanigans with Thomas Holcroft and the revolutionary and political events of that period.

But communicating about Nicholson’s experiments and the achievement of splitting water (with his colleague Anthony Carlisle) was a different matter.

I’ll confess to being a late-bloomer when it comes to any interest in science. My younger self would be astonished to learn that one day I might be interested about the history of science – nevermind reading and writing about it.  I’m certainly not equipped to talk or even demonstrate it.

But just around the corner from St George’s Gardens is University College London, which was also involved with the Bloomsbury Festival, and which happens to have an electrochemistry outreach group. Several PhD students were keen to spread the word about the future of clean energy and the potential for hydrogen fuel cells – a technology which can trace its history in a direct line to Nicholson & Carlisle’s experiment in May 1800 in the house in Soho Square. (See this guest blog from Alice Llewellyn- How the discovery of electrolysis has changed the future’s energy landscape).

The UCL team comprised Alice Llewellyn, Harry Michael, Keenan Smith and Zahra Rana as presenters, and Katrina Mazloomian as videographer.  They brought the science to life in a wonderfully engaging way.

This extract from ‘In Conversation with Mr Nicholson’ is now on the Nicholson’s Journal YouTube account and shows Mr Nicholson (played by Julian Date) talking to the PhD students as they:

  • recreate Nicholson & Carlisle’s splitting of water with battery;
  • describe how the discovery of electrolysis is useful today;
  • explain the connection with global warming and clean energy; and
  • describe the hydrogen fuel cell.

This is followed by a Q&A session recorded from the online event. With questions including:

  • How does the oxygen and hydrogen know to come out of separate tubes?
  • Has the problem of holding and gradually releasing the hydrogen been solved?
  • Fuel cells are nice, but you need electricity to generate the hydrogen. Will the UK have enough capacity to generate enough electricity from non-fossil fuels?

Thankfully our team of experts from UCL answered these questions most interestingly, and in plain English as you can see on the second of two videos from the Bloomsbury Festival. 

Click here to watch:

In Conversation #2: Ucell recreate Nicholson (1753-1815) splitting water by electrolysis, May 1800

The Life of William Nicholson, 1753–1815

A Memoir of Enlightenment, Commerce, Politics, Arts and Science

Edited by Sue Durrell and with an afterword by Professor Frank James

£13.99

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Exploring the life and publications
of William Nicholson 1753-1815