Rutgers researchers have developed a technology using carbon nanotubes in place of platinum to produce hydrogen. The technology could overcome platinum’s major cost barrier to making clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The new technology is a novel catalyst that performs almost as well as cost-prohibitive platinum for so-called electrolysis reactions, which use electric currents to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Carbon Nanotube Hydrogen Production Catalyst  Image Credit:  Tewodros Asefa.  Click image for the largest view.

Carbon Nanotube Hydrogen Production Catalyst.   Image Credit: Tewodros Asefa. Click image for the largest view.

The Rutgers group reports the technology is also far more efficient than other less expensive catalysts investigated to date.

Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences said, “Hydrogen has long been expected to play a vital role in our future energy landscapes by mitigating, if not completely eliminating, our reliance on fossil fuels, We have developed a sustainable chemical catalyst that, we hope with the right industry partner, can bring this vision to life.”

Asefa and his colleagues based their new catalyst on carbon nanotubes that are one-atom-thick sheets of carbon rolled into tubes 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. The cobalt-embedded nitrogen-rich carbon nanotubes can efficiently electrocatalyze the hydrogen evolution reaction with activities close to that of platinum.

Finding ways to make electrolysis reactions commercially viable is important because common processes that make hydrogen today start with the methane in natural gas – itself a fossil fuel. The need to consume fossil fuel therefore negates current claims that hydrogen is a “green” fuel.

Electrolysis, however, could produce hydrogen using electricity generated by renewable sources, such as solar, wind and hydro energy, or by carbon-neutral sources, such as nuclear energy. And even if fossil fuels were used for electrolysis, the higher efficiency and better emissions controls of large power plants could give hydrogen fuel cells an advantage over less efficient and more polluting gasoline and diesel engines in millions of vehicles and other applications.

Asefa and his colleagues reported in a scientific paper published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, that their technology, called “Noble metal Free Nitrogen Rich Carbon Nanotubes,” efficiently catalyze the hydrogen evolution reaction with activities close to that of platinum. They also function well in acidic, neutral or basic conditions, allowing them to be coupled with the best available oxygen-evolving catalysts that also play crucial roles in the water-splitting reaction.

The researchers have filed for a patent on the catalyst, which is available for licensing or research collaborations through the Rutgers Office of Technology Commercialization.

It looks like the catalyst field is far from quieting down. A lot of element blends and new molecules are coming out of research work, many with very high value potential in industrial applications. Its only a matter of serendipity and time until water splitting gets better commercial legs. Then hydrogen will only be left with storage and safety issues.

The new technology’s working longevity, operating temperature and other details aren’t out for now, but along with several others we’ll be watching with great interest.


1 Comment so far

  1. Matt Musson on July 15, 2014 9:45 AM

    Currently – an ounce of carbon nanotubes is more expensive than an ounce of platinum.

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