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Cars cheap hydrogen for FCEVs

Published on October 13th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Researchers High On “Molly” For Low-Cost Hydrogen Fuel

October 13th, 2015 by  

Fuel cell electric vehicles have a lot of catching up to do compared to their battery-powered cousins, but it’s also becoming clear that the learning curve for hydrogen fuel cells is accelerating past the fossil fuel stage and racing into renewable energy, as indicated by a new low-cost catalyst under development by our molly-loving friends over at Sandia National Laboratories.

cheap hydrogen for FCEVs

“In this simulation, the color is from dye excited by light and generating electrons for the catalyst molybdenum disulfide to evolve hydrogen”

Fossil Fuels, FCEVs, and BEVs

One of the central stumbling blocks for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) is the use of fossil natural gas to produce hydrogen fuel. In that regard, FCEVs face a challenge similar to that faced by battery EVs (BEVs), which depend on fossil sources when they are charged from a grid mix that includes coal or natural gas (or to a much lesser extent in the US, petroleum). However, FCEVs are practically always much dirtier due to lower efficiencies, and can’t be fueled of rooftop solar power.

BEVs are resolving their fossil problem at a fairly rapid clip in some markets anyway, as more utilities adopt renewable wind and solar energy on top of the considerable hydro resources at hand in some parts of the US. Distributed solar is making its way directly to home charging stations as well as public ones. Micro wind turbines and combined wind and solar systems are also finding a place in the EV charging station field.

Similarly, renewable energy is also making its way into hydrogen fuel production for FCEVs, primarily in the form of electrolysis (water-splitting) powered directly by the sun, or indirectly by wind-generated electricity. Emerging power-to-gas systems are also leveraging renewable energy to use hydrogen gas as a utility-scale storage system.

The Road To Low Cost Hydrogen Fuel

Renewable energy or not, the problem with splitting water to produce hydrogen fuel comes down to cost. The process requires a catalyst (or two, for those of you keeping score at home). The conventional catalyst of choice is platinum, which currently weighs in at a hefty $1,500 per gram.


Aside from cost, platinum is also problematic in the US due to supply chain issues. Though the US is a leading platinum-producing country, South Africa and Russia beat it by a mile. It’s certainly not the kind of abundant hat you’d want to hang your domestic auto industry on.

Molly To The Rescue

The race is on for low-cost alternatives in the US, and that brings us right around to the new FCEV development from Sandia. Researchers there have been setting their sights on “molly,” short for molybdenum disulfide (or MoS2 if you’re not making a party drug joke out of it).

MoS2 has two points in its favor here in the US: it currently costs just 37 cents per pound, and it can be produced from abundant domestic sources, namely molybdenite.

If MoS2 is ringing bells, that’s because the material is emerging as a 2D “cousin” of graphene, and research teams have been investigating it for energy storage as well as renewable hydrogen production and other clean tech applications.

The secret sauce is an “energetically disordered region” at the edges of the 2D crystals, which translates into a catalytic efficiency pretty close to that of platinum.

Our sister site Gas2.org noted a variation on that theme back in 2010, when researchers there described a molybdenum-oxo catalyst for water-splitting.

At Sandia, researchers have been focused on making the most out of the aforementioned disordered region. While tantalizingly efficient as a catalyst, the problem is that this nanoscale region has to drag along an enormous tail of relatively useless material.

The Sandia team describes it as similar to an orange, but in reverse: the thin rind is the useful part, while the edible pulp is totally useless. That presents a significant roadblock to commercialization.

The team describes the path toward a solution in the November 7 edition of the journal Nature, under the title “Understanding catalysis in a multiphasic two-dimensional transition metal dichalcogenide.”

The basic idea is to render the “pulp” catalytically active, and the team demonstrated proof of principle for accomplishing that by using lithium to separate nanoscale sheets of MoS2 in solution. The lithium-enabled process changes the molecular “lattice” into an active structure, like that of the edge.

“Clean Diesel” Scandal Helps The Case For FCEVs

On the heels of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, new evidence has emerged that many other diesel models in the EU have used “teach to the test” engineering, enabling cars to meet nitrogen oxides (NOx) standards in the lab but emitting an average of four times more — and up to 20 times in at least one case — during actual road use.

Industry observers are already anticipating that the case for “clean diesel” has gone down the tubes because of Volkswagen, and the new cases point to the increasingly complex — and expensive — task of developing testing regimens that accurately measure pollutants under real road conditions.

While it’s true that FCEV technology is far behind BEVs, energy planners in some European countries (Germany is a good example) are already banking on power-to-gas technology to store renewable energy and replace petroleum fuel, and the elimination of “clean diesel” could push that trend along.

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Image (cropped) by Randy Montoya, via Sandia National Laboratories.

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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+.

  • Ben Franklin

    The platinum price is $996 per ounce troy, that is per 31.1 gram. That is $32 per gram, and nowhere near the “hefty” $1500 per gram stated in the article.

  • Richard Poore

    Had to stop reading a moment when I hit the line about platinum not being abundant enough to hang your domestic auto industry on.

    So we wouldn’t want to have our auto industry building autos equipped with catalytic converters? Rather like we have been doing for years??

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have the platinum as a catalyst in dedicated hydrogen plant, instead of in every catalytic converter….as it is now?

    Thought that the real problem with fuel cell tech was the amount of energy needed to run the process, not the cost of the catalyst. The catalyst, by definition, isn’t used up in the process.

  • JamesWimberley

    Any news of fuel cell ship propulsion? A priori it looks a much better fit for the technology than cars. Ships are big and heavy, and can easily hold large high-pressure tanks. They travel very long distances, making en-route refueling problematic. They can easily be equipped with solar panels for assist recharging and emergency propulsion. Finally electric drive motors can make ships much more manoeuverable nearing port.

  • Rob Lewis

    Whoa, Nellie! The spot price of platinum is under $1,000 per OUNCE (not gram)! And if I’m not mistaken, that’s a Troy ounce, which is 31.1 grams, not the avoirdupois ounce (28.35 g) we’re more familiar with.

    If platinum was as pricey as you say, organized gangs would be stealing the catalytic converters from cars.

  • 3dmike


    Right on.

    Natural gas and the hydrocarbon industry are tenacious and will not relinquish their energy strangle hold.

    Any technology that even mentions the use of any hydrocarbon in its technology is not a movement in the positive direction for the world’s future.

    Just another PR stunt.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      How is research at Sandia National Labs “Just another PR stunt”..?

  • Bob_Wallace

    Does it reduce the amount of electricity needed per unit of hydrogen?

    Bringing down the cost of equipment isn’t going to help H2 catch up as long as we can drive twice or three times further with the electricity embedded in the hydrogen.

    • Steve Grinwis

      Hammer, meet nail head.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      You can make all the hydrogen you need from Wind and Solar.
      “The commercial use of power-to-gas technology is primarily being considered in Europe, where it is being reviewed by the European Gas Research Group, as well as the energy departments of several nations. In Germany alone there are 18 different experimental programs being conducted. Power-to-gas conversion is also being evaluated for commercial application in the United States by the Southern California Gas Company, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine.”

      • Bob_Wallace

        You can make all the hydrogen you need from Wind and Solar. That’s a fact, Jack.

        Tell you what. How about we take this route –

        First, we’ll get our climate change problem under control (or at least quit making it worse) by eliminating fossil fuels from our lives.

        To do that we’ll need to be as efficient as possible during the buildout of renewable energy. We’ll need to transport ourselves using as little electricity as possible. Which means battery powered EVs.

        Then, once we’ve electrified our transportation, we can start to be less efficient. We can install additional Wind and Solar and use it to extract hydrogen from water. We can use more of that ‘additional’ Wind and Solar to compress the hydrogen to get it into tanks. And then we can drive around in fuel cell cars.

        Sound like a workable solution? I figure that we can afford to use FCEVs somewhere between 2040 and 2050. I’d like to see us get to 0% carbon fuel earlier, so maybe we wouldn’t have to wait that long to enjoy FCEVs.

    • sjc_1

      We can take CO2 sequestered from fossil fuel power plants and stored in spent natural gas fields then combine it with hydrogen created using this lower cost higher output technology. That way we make fuels every car can use while reusing carbon. Use the carbon twice, cut the CO2 emissions in half.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Or not make life nearly as complicated and install wind and solar while moving to PHEVs and EVs.

        How much simpler could it get?

        1) Make electricity
        2) Store electricity in batteries
        3) Drive

        And there’s no CO2 to worry about.

        • Frank

          I think figuring out how to split water efficiently may be useful for something, just not cars.

          • neroden

            What Frank said. There seems to be some future in stationary hydrogen-generation applications. Not for cars though.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I agree. But I’d suggest we use it because it works (least expensive, fewest problems) than use it because it would be “cool”.

            So often it seems we see people with a solution trying to find a problem where it could be used. And trying so hard that they dismiss better solutions.

        • sjc_1

          We will continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon for many decades to come EVs account for 0.1% of sales over 5 years. Maybe we might get 1% withing the next 10 years. No where near fast enough. Go with what we have and what is proven to work.

          • Bob_Wallace

            EVs and FCEVs work (as do PHEVs). One of those or a combination of those will get us out of ICEVs. We need to go with one of those, you’re right.

            That EVs “account for 0.1% of sales over 5 year” is a meaningless statistic. At one time cell phones accounted for 0.1%….. At one time 0.1% of all TVs were color….

            One percent in 10 years? If EVs don’t get cheaper.

            But introduce a 200 mile range EV for $35k and it becomes a different market than before when sales were lot. We’re scheduled to have long range $35k EVs in just over a year.

            Five years from now long range EVs should be under $30k and cheaper than the price of today’s average new car.

            Those are the things that will drive uptake, not past sales history.

          • Frank

            Another fine example is solar. Compare the cost curve to the rate of installations. When you crash through the line between “not worth it” and “worth it”, change can pappen fast. Or how about digital cameras?

  • Joe Viocoe

    So Tina Casey is again excited about a Lab / Research project on Hydrogen… but ignores the dozens of Battery research project equally as frivolous.

    Battery tech has so much more in the research pipeline, that even if hydrogen gets a breakthrough, it cannot keep up with Batteries.

  • Joe Viocoe

    VW is looking more toward BEVs, NOT FCVs… with the decline of diesel.

    Also, the “Power-to-gas” Hydrogen scheme doesn’t compress or store H2 for Fuel Cell use, as they claim it MAY SOMEDAY be used for such… Rather it feeds the hydrogen to supplement the Natural Gas infrastructure. Thereby propping up the Natural Gas producers, and maintaining the paradigm.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      “Natural Gas” is the stuff that PG&E is burning to keep your lights on

      • Bob_Wallace


        Luckily storage seems to be shaping up so we can start cutting back on that stuff as well.

        And we need to get the transmission line up to the Wyoming wind fields and get some floaters off the coast. There’s some sweet, sweet nighttime power there that won’t need to be stored.

      • Joe Viocoe

        Solar and wind RECs offset quite a bit.

    • Jim

      Is that why they have engineering services from ballard power systems? Along with paying 80 million+ for some of their patents.

      • Joe Viocoe

        Yep, all R&D, nothing real world.

  • Michael G

    Nice to hear about such potential solutions to FC issues. Platinum has been a barrier for a long while. I’ve always felt that technical problems are always solvable if you put enough time and people on it. (Assuming it is physically possible, of course).

  • sjc_1

    This produces 4 times more hydrogen for a given volume, it is not more efficient.

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