While a few hold on to the pure hydrogen gas fuel idea, hydrogen for industrial use and fuel production is in great demand with a need for declining prices.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have come up with an extraordinarily efficient two-step process that electrolyzes, or separates, hydrogen atoms from water molecules before recombining them to make molecular hydrogen (H2), which can be used in any number of applications from fuels to industrial production.  The paper is now published in Science.

Argonne Platinum Catalyst Hydrogen Production Activity Graphic. Click image for more info.

Cheaper and more efficient production of hydrogen gas has long been a target of scientists and engineers, primarily due to the gas creation requiring a great deal of energy. The DOE offers that approximately 2% of all electric power generated in the United States is dedicated to the production of molecular hydrogen, making a strong motivator for scientists and engineers searching to find any way to cut electrical use.

Nenad Markovic, the Argonne senior chemist who led the research said, “People understand that once you have hydrogen you can extract a lot of energy from it, but they don’t realize just how hard it is to generate that hydrogen in the first place.”

For now a great deal of hydrogen is created by reforming natural gas at high temperatures, a process that releases those annoying carbon-dioxide emissions.  Makovic takes the point on, “Water electrolyzers are by far the cleanest way of producing hydrogen. The method we’ve devised combines the capabilities of two of the best materials known for water-based electrolysis.”

Many of the highly efficient water-based electrolysis processes rely on metal catalysts like platinum to adsorb and recombine reactive hydrogen intermediates into stable molecular hydrogen. Markovic’s research focuses on the absorption step that involves improving the efficiency by which an incoming water molecule would disassociate into its fundamental components. To do this, Markovic and his colleagues added clusters of a metallic complex known as nickel-hydroxide – Ni(OH)2.  When the nickel-hydroxide is attached to a platinum framework the clusters tore apart the water molecules, allowing for the freed hydrogen to be catalyzed by the platinum to H2 gas.

The process involved growing conductive ultra-thin Ni(OH)2 clusters (height 0.7 nm, width 8 to 10 nm) on both pristine Pt single-crystal surfaces and Pt surfaces modified by two-dimensional (2D) Pt ad-islands [Pt-islands/Pt(111)].

“One of the most important points of this experiment is that we’re combining two materials with very different benefits. The advantage of using both oxides and metals in conjunction dramatically improves the catalytic efficiency of the whole system,” said Markovic.

The source technology, according to Argonne materials scientist George Crabtree, who helped to initiate the establishment of Argonne’s energy conversion program, is the researchers’ ability to work successfully on what are known as “single-crystal” systems – defect-free materials that allow scientists to accurately predict how certain materials will behave at the atomic level.

Crabtree comes close to exploring the efficiency gain with, “We have not only increased catalytic activity by a factor of 10, but also now understand how each part of the system works. By scaling up from the single crystal to a real-world catalyst, this work illustrates how fundamental understanding leads quickly to innovative new technologies.”

At a given production rate an increase by a factor of 10 suggests a 90% reduction in precious platinum investment for the catalyst.  But the neither the study abstract or the press release is clear on that.  It may also have an impact on the electrical draw, but that matter also isn’t covered.

However the team is calculating getting to a factor of 10 the point is clear, they have worked up a catalyst sandwich that works far better than standard precious metal electrolysis.  Now if the catalyst can be made at commercial scale they’ll really have something – there’s a huge demand for hydrogen now, and cheaper hydrogen gas will only make the market larger.


1 Comment so far

  1. JP Straley on December 13, 2011 1:55 PM

    High temp LFTR And iodine – sulfur cycle for H. Bingo.

    JP Straley

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