Clean Power new hydrogen catalyst takes off like a rocket

Published on June 16th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


New Hydrogen Catalyst Takes off Like a Rocket

June 16th, 2012 by  

new hydrogen catalyst takes off like a rocket

The next generation of low-cost fuel cells could take your home off the grid and free your car from the gas pump with clean, renewable energy, and researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have brought us one step closer to that future. The team has deployed a biomimicry-based hydrogen production process that combines high speed with high energy efficiency, thanks to a catalyst that “lights up like a rocket.”

An obstacle for low-cost fuel cells

Hydrogen is the most abundant material on the planet, but hydrogen fuel cells are relatively expensive in part because separating hydrogen from water molecules typically involves the use of a pricey platinum catalyst, and partly because it can be an energy-hungry process.

So far, researchers have found ways to make cheaper nickel-based catalysts work more quickly, or use less energy, but not both at the same time.



A fast, efficient hydrogen catalyst from biomimicry

To achieve a catalytic twofer, the PNNL team used a type of natural protein called a hydrogenase as their model. A hydrogenase is an enzyme that plays a role in anaerobic (oxygen-free) digestion. Its key role is to create an energy-storing chemical bond between two hydrogen atoms.

In its initial form, the team’s “imitation” hydrogenase catalyst could produce hydrogen molecules at a snail’s pace of about 1,000 per second.

It could also produce at the rate of 100,000 per second, but only under energy-intensive conditions.

The breakthrough came when the team dissolved the catalyst in a solution of salts called an ionic liquid. When they slowly added water to the mix, the catalyst began to light up “like a rocket” according to PNNL chemist John Roberts.

At its best rate, the catalyst cranked out 53,000 molecules of hydrogen per second without a loss of energy efficiency.

Next steps for biomimicry fuel cells

In addition to achieving a better ratio of speed to efficiency, the PNNL team also came away with a better understanding of how the catalyst interacts with its ionic bath. The team plans to develop those clues into further improvements.

For now, the team will continue to study the catalyst in its dissolvable form, but for real-world applications they will eventually need to bind it to a fixed surface.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • If you want to expand the economy then these technologies call for a massive infusion of public and private capital.   Thousands of small cap firms should be pushing out every nuance of the science here.    There are too many dullards in the way.

  • Hydrogen will need to be able to compete with burning natural gas and then removing the CO2 released from the atmosphere (plus whatever extra amount is required to account for methane leaks).  Currently I would not bet on that happening.  On the other hand, if wind and solar pushes the price of electricity down to zero at times, the loss of energy from extracting hydrogen from water at those times doesn’t seem so bad.

    • Anne

      I have thought about that too, but the problem with that is that you must have a giant hydrogen factory on standby waiting for the electricity price to get to zero, and then fire up. Usually the capital expenditures on such plants is too high to let it sit still doing nothing for most of the time. Refineries run 24/7 for a good reason.

      • Yep, not likely to be competitive.  Although the lower the efficiency one is willing to put up with, the lower the capital costs to produce hydrogen.  Despite this, I doubt it will be done on a large scale if at all.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Hydrogen might be a storage option.  It’s going to depend on how cheap grid storage batteries get.  We’ve got one company stating 6 cents per kWh with the prospect of getting down to 1.5 cents.  And liquid metal batteries should be very cheap.  If those products pan out then hydrogen will face stiff competition.  Batteries are about 85% efficient.

        I don’t see hydrogen powered vehicles as likely.  If EV batteries increase about 50% in capacity and fall to an affordable price point then EVs will likely lock in the market.

        For hydrogen FECVs to take the market away from EVs they would have to be significantly cheaper to own and operate.  You’d have to get fuel cells well below the price of batteries and distribute hydrogen for well under “$1/gallon”.

        Unless there is a major economic advantage for hydrogen fueled driving it would make no sense to invest the many billions of dollars to install a hydrogen generation/distribution system.

        • Sunnykairos

          Yes the solution is in a home hydrogen power box powered by a third generation solar panel that will allow it ,with this technology, to power the home through the day and night. Big power plants will be obsolete. Most power will be generated on site for everything. It is a disruptive technology that has been held back because of what it can achieve for individuals, not power companies.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sorry, I do not see that happening.

            You’d have to purchase a ‘water cracker’. 

            You’d have to purchase hydrogen storage including equipment to pressurize the hydrogen (or get a really big tank).

            And you’d have to purchase equipment to convert hydrogen back into electricity.

            Along with that you’d lose a lot of the energy you put in the front end.

            My money is on batteries.

            And, no, I don’t see the end of power/utility companies.  A lessor role, yes, but many people are not either able or willing to set up their own power companies.  

            And stand-alone systems are very much less efficient than large grid systems that can bring power from a variety of sources and locations.

          • Anne

            No, this technology hasn’t been held back. It is freely available. Why the conspiracy theory?

            Many remote vacation houses or boats have an off-grid installation with batteries. But it is very expensive and can not guarantee 100% availability. On a specific site, the sun can hide behind the clouds for many days or even weeks. The batteries would be way more expensive than the monthly fee for a grid connection.

            It is not efficient to turn each house into an energy island. Eliminating over/underproduction on site will require vast amounts of storage, much larger than when you first combine all generators (different technologies) over a large area and then deal with the remaining variability.

            Also, many houses (eg apartments)  do not have enough roof available to generate all their energy on site and go off-grid.

            To flatten the day/night curve, batteries are much cheaper than hydrogen
            and will be for the forseeable future. Seasonal storage is another
            question, there might be a role for hydrogen there.

          • Bob_Wallace

            What Anne says is correct.  I’m off the grid, have been for over 20 years.  Being attached to a large grid has significant advantages.

            I’ve got far more solar panels than I need for sunny days like today.  My batteries were full before 10am.  That means hours of wasted energy that could be flowing somewhere else and reducing fossil fuel useage.

            I’ve got far too few solar panels than I need for cloudy days.  I can’t get close to producing all my electricity needs during a string of overcast days.  I have to crank up the generator and burn fossil fuel. I wish I could grab some of the excess wind or hydro that my neighbors are producing.

            Seasonal storage using hydrogen. We don’t have numbers to let us start understanding the cost of our options.  One thing about hydrogen, we could build up the supply over time, meaning that we could build less generation.  

            But we’d have to be able to turn that hydrogen into electricity in large volumes which would mean a lot of fuel cells/whatever.  A big investment.

            If we just over-sized all the distributed battery installations that we’re likely to end up with we would only have to add extra batteries.  We could charge them with the same AC -> DC equipment we would use for grid smoothing and short term storage.  Then we could use the same inverters we use for short term storage, just run them all at full output, all at the same time.

          • jeffhre

            yes, that is a loss 🙂
            With your knowledge and means, you may want to look at fabricating a hydrogen separation and storage system. Then you could donate the extra solar panels to a good nonprofit org.

      • Elliot boyers

        Hydrogen can be made on site (@ Fuel stations) which means you’ll cut out so much carbon from transportation of fuels. Solar Arrays combined with a wind turbine could also be coupled to the the filling station offsetting your energy demands..

        • Bob_Wallace

          That’s still a lot of infrastructure to create in order to convert electricity into hydrogen and then back into electricity later on.

          Give us more affordable and higher capacity batteries and hydrogen energy storage for vehicles make no sense.

  • Anne

    This is good news, but a few hurdles remain for the hydrogen economy. Since hydrogen is only an energy carrier. the question is: what is the wind-to-wheel efficiency?

    Producing hydrogen from methane doesn’t solve the problem of CO2 emission, or could even worsen climate change, depending on how much of the methane leaks during the extraction of natural gas.

    So, the other route is producing hydrogen by electrolysis with renewable electricity. This is less than 50% efficient. We can not afford to waste that much energy.

    For example. The Honda FCX Clarity can run 60 miles per kg of hydrogen. Producing 1 kg of compressed hydrogen by electrolysis costs ~60 kWh/kg. So the wind-to-wheel efficiency of the Clarity is 1 mile per kWh. The Nissan LEAF travels 3 miles per kWh by using the electricity directly. Some good progress is needed in this area before the hydrogen car becomes an attractive option.

  • how sooner can we expect in real world

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