One Step Closer To The Hydrogen Economy Dream

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The term hydrogen economy was coined back in 1970 by the noted and controversial electrochemist Bernhardt Patrick John O’Mara Bockris. Ever since then, researchers and policymakers have been poring over the feasibility of an “ultimate economy” based on a cheap, abundant fuel with no greenhouse gas emissions. It’s been slow going, but a research team from Sweden has discovered a pathway to getting the planet closer to the “cheap” aspect.

hydrogen economy Sweden

What’s The Matter With The Hydrogen Economy?

A 2006 United Nations report outlines the allure of the hydrogen economy, along with some important caveats.

Hydrogen does not produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned directly, or when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell. However, hydrogen is only as clean as its source, and currently the primary source of hydrogen is natural gas and other fossil sources.

That’s beginning to change with the rise of low cost wind and solar energy. Renewable energy can be deployed to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis (that’s fancyspeak for the application of an electrical current).

The emergence of power-to-gas systems demonstrates how hydrogen can dovetail with wind and solar, since it can be deployed as an energy storage strategy for intermittent energy sources.

Hydrogen production could also help offset the cost of desalination or municipal wastewater treatment.

However, for the water-to-hydrogen equation to work on a mainstream scale, the cost factor has to be addressed.

One key element in the cost of hydrogen production is the cost of the catalyst used in electrolysis, and that’s where the new research comes in.

A Pathway To Low Cost Hydrogen

The new hydrogen research is from a team at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

The researchers note that in the current state of technology, the highest performing catalysts are iridium oxide and ruthenium oxide, which are based on rare precious metals.

Aside from being generally expensive, such materials are vulnerable to global geopolitical and economic forces that result in supply chain issues and price spikes.

So, the hunt has been on for abundant, low cost replacements.

If you’re interested on some background about this hunt, check out the team’s hydrogen paperNickel–vanadium monolayer double hydroxide for efficient electrochemical water oxidation” in the journal Nature Communications, in which they outline the goal of achieving results comparable to NiFe-LDH (that’s nickel-iron layered double hydroxide).

The team hit upon vanadium for their solution, deploying a “simple” one-step hydrothermal process to synthesize a monolayered double hydroxide involving nickel and vanadium (NiV-LDH).

Structurally, the material consists of interconnected nickel-vanadium oxygen polyhedron. The whole thing is less than one nanometer thick. It acts to increase the surface area of the catalyst (which is always a good thing), and it provides for more efficient electron transfer:

In this work, we incorporate another earth-abundant element into Ni(OH)2: vanadium, and succeed in forming NiV-LDH as an efficient catalyst for the water oxidation reaction…NiV-LDH catalyst exhibits comparable activity to the best-performing NiFe-LDH for water oxidation in alkaline electrolyte.

According to the team, this is the first time that vanadium has been combined with nickel hydroxide for use as a catalyst in electrolysis. It performed “beyond expectations” and the results indicate a “competitive, cheap alternative to catalysts that rely on more expensive, precious materials.”

The team also anticipates that further R&D along these lines could yield low cost, abundant catalysts that outperform ruthenium and iridium.

What’s In It For Sweden?

Sweden is among several nations looking into power-to-gas for the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future — or at least, as a key element in achieving a low carbon economy sooner rather than later:

…it will be a question of a system solution that links the need to store electricity on a large scale with the need to produce more renewable fuels. Through to 2030, it is estimated that 2–3 TWh of gas could be produced through Power to Gas. At present, biogas production stands at 1.6 TWh, and this technology could thus provide a valuable injection of energy and contribute to realizing the political target of fossil-free road traffic by 2030.

Sweden has some catching up to do — about 30 power-to-gas pilot plants are already online or under construction in Europe.

The last we heard, a feasibility study is wrapping up and a pilot power-to-gas plant is in the works for Gothenburg, Sweden, so stay tuned for that.

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Image (screenshot): via KTH.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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