Clean Transport

Published on February 24th, 2014 | by James Ayre


Hydrogen Fuel Gets Boost From New, Inexpensive Materials

February 24th, 2014 by  

Hydrogen-powered transport may not compete with battery-electric transport at the moment (doesn’t even come close), but hydrogen could become useful in a few decades if research and development for this clean energy option. Below is the latest good news regarding hydrogen fuel research, reposted from Planetsave.

While hydrogen fuel production — via the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight — has long been prominent in the public imagination, the reality is that the technology is still quite a ways off from being economical. That gap between the economical and the reality is narrowing though, as new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows.

Researchers there have succeeded in achieving a new record (with regard to oxide-based photoelectrode systems) solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 1.7% — while using relatively inexpensive new materials.

hydrogen fuel

“In order to make commercially viable devices for solar fuel production, the material and the processing costs should be reduced significantly while achieving a high solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency,” states researcher Kyoung-Shin Choi, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

So, to address this, the researchers created solar cells from bismuth vanadate and used electrodeposition (think gold-plated jewelry) to boost “the compound’s surface area to a remarkable 32 square meters for each gram.”

“Without fancy equipment, high temperature or high pressure, we made a nanoporous semiconductor of very tiny particles that have a high surface area,” explains Choi. “More surface area means more contact area with water, and, therefore, more efficient water splitting.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides more:

Bismuth vanadate needs a hand in speeding the reaction that produces fuel, and that’s where the paired catalysts come in. While there are many research groups working on the development of photoelectric semiconductors, and many working on the development of water-splitting catalysts, according to Choi, the semiconductor-catalyst junction gets relatively little attention.

Choi and Kim exploited a pair of cheap and somewhat flawed catalysts — iron oxide and nickel oxide — by stacking them on the bismuth vanadate to take advantage of their relative strengths.

“Since no one catalyst can make a good interface with both the semiconductor and the water that is our reactant, we choose to split that work into two parts,” Choi states. “The iron oxide makes a good junction with bismuth vanadate, and the nickel oxide makes a good catalytic interface with water. So we use them together.”

The dual-layer catalyst approach allows for the simultaneous optimization of the semiconductor-catalyst junction and also the catalyst-water junction.

“Combining this cheap catalyst duo with our nanoporous high surface area semiconductor electrode resulted in the construction of an inexpensive all oxide-based photoelectrode system with a record high efficiency,” Choi continues.

“Other researchers studying different types of semiconductors or different types of catalysts can start to use this approach to identify which combinations of materials can be even more efficient,” says Choi. “Which some engineering, the efficiency we achieved could be further improved very fast.”

The researchers are currently working to tweak their design further.

The new research was just published in the journal Science.

Image Credit: UW-Madison/Bryce Richter

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Mo

    PET pipelines only show a 3% loss, Hydrogen is also easily transported as water or hydrocarbon, ammonia and also in novel solid state materials. Energy efficiency is an issue and activation for conversion should be sourced sustainable, wind, solar. You can also heat Deuterium and Tritium to a plasma and milk the energy. haha

  • Surf

    about 1kw of light lands on 1 square meter of land. if you cover that one square meter with off the shelf 20% efficient solar sells and then pip that power into a stand off the shelf water to hydrogen electrolyzer (about 70% efficient) you would achieve a solar to hydrogen conversion efficiency of 14%.. In my opinion achieving 1.7% conversion efficiency in one step is really not news worthy.

    If you skip the electrolyzer and just put the electricity into a battery the conversion efficiency is going to be higher, possibly close to 20%. The production, distribution and storage inefficiencies of the hydrogen economy are so poor that a hydrogen vehicle will always cost more to operate than a all electric car .

    • Bob_Wallace

      Then you have to add in the cost of the distribution system. That cost is going to further raise the ‘per mile’ cost.

      EVs can use an already in place distribution system. Charging at night is likely to be the norm and during late night the existing grid is under used leaving plenty room for EVs to tank up.

  • Wayne Williamson

    The main problem with a hydrogen “fuel” economy is not the production, but the distribution and compact storage. Its similar for electric, but at least LIon is a partial solution, and the electricity distribution is already in place.

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