Discovery of Cheap Catalyst Advances Case for Hydrogen Fuel

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Inexpensive hydrogen-powered automobiles may not be so far away from reality as we might think.

The Green Car Congress and others have reported that researchers from the United States and Denmark have developed a molybdenum sulfide catalyst that functions as an inexpensive alternative to platinum—the traditional, too expensive hydrogen fuel catalyst. The result of this discovery now shows a viable pathway for making cheap hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water.

As a fuel, hydrogen is energy dense and clean, releasing only water upon combustion. Some methods for producing hydrogen, however, have had some adverse atmospheric impacts. Most hydrogen that is produced today comes via natural gas through a process known as steam methane reforming (SMR). SMR creates large emissions of CO2 – a contributor to atmospheric warming. The best alternative for making hydrogen fuel comes from using sunlight and water –  a process referred to as photo-electrochemical, or PEC water splitting.

According to a release issued yesterday by EurekAlert, the molybdenum sulfide  discovery provides a remarkable new vista for the development of this fuel: “The discovery is an important development in the worldwide effort to mimic the way plants make fuel from sunlight, a key step in creating a green energy economy.”

Theorist Jens Nørskov from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, and a team led by Ib Chorkendorff and Søren Dahl at the Technical University of Denmark reported news of this discovery last week in Nature Materials.

Progress for this type of technology has been limited due to a lack of cheap catalysts that can speed up the generation of hydrogen and oxygen, writes Melinda Lee, the press contact at SLAC, a laboratory exploring questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. SLAC is located in Menlo Park, CA, where it is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

“If we can find new ways of rationally designing catalysts, we can speed up the development of new catalytic materials enormously,” Nørskov said regarding the discovery.

His team investigated hydrogen producing enzymes—natural catalysts—from certain organisms, using a theoretical approach Nørskov’s group had been developing to describe catalyst behavior. Their calculations led them to related compounds, leading eventually to molybdenum sulfide as an inexpensive solution.

For the curious chemist in readers, this QuickTime movie from shows some of the reaction that takes place.

For champions of green energy, this discovery may prove to be immensely important in the development of hydrogen as a choice fuel.

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

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