Nanotech Solution To Hydrogen Fuel Puzzle From Brookhaven Lab?

A team of researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, has opened the door to a future of clean, cheap hydrogen fuel by ditching a popular platinum catalyst in favor of one based on two low cost alternatives, nickel and molybdenum.

Until now, the manufacture of hydrogen gas has faced a huge and somewhat ironic obstacle: Though hydrogen gas is produced from a chemical reaction in plain water, one of the cheapest and most abundant substances imaginable, the most efficient catalyst for generating that reaction is platinum - which currently weighs in at a hefty $50,000 per kilogram price tag, and rising.

In contrast, nickel costs only $20 per kilogram. Molybdenum, a silvery gray metal, costs $32.

If successfully commercialized, the new catalyst could have a powerful impact on the price of hydrogen, leading the way to a new generation of emission-free hydrogen-fueled vehicles as well as hydrogen fuel cells for many other uses.

Drawing more juice out of nickel and molybdenum was a complex project that Brookhaven describes as “Goldilocks chemistry:”

“For a catalyst to facilitate an efficient reaction, it must combine high durability, high catalytic activity, and high surface area. The strength of an element’s bond to hydrogen determines its reaction level - too weak, and there’s no activity; too strong, and the initial activity poisons the catalyst.”

By itself, nickel is not nearly as efficient a catalyst as platinum. To get to that “just right” point, the team tried infusing a nickel-molybdenum combination with nitrogen.The nitrogen expanded the metals into two-dimensional, lattice-like forms, resulting in nanosheets of nickel-molybdenum-nitride.

The 2-D nanosheets provide far more surface area for the reaction, boosting the new catalyst’s performance beyond the team’s expectations.

Though developing the new catalyst was complicated, according to Brookhaven, the production of the nanosheets is a simple process that could easily be ramped up to a commercial level and used for the bulk manufacture of hydrogen.

Similar research is also being conducted at a more modest end of the spectrum by Daniel Nocera of Harvard University (formerly of MIT). Nocera has also been deploying a nickel-molybdenum compound  combined with another relatively cheap material, zinc, to create a low cost catalyst for producing hydrogen gas.

Nocera’s signature  device, which he calls an “artificial leaf,” is designed as a cheap source of clean, renewable energy for households in the developing world.

It consists of the catalyst and a pocket-sized solar cell that can be dropped in a jar of water placed in the sun. The solar cell provides electricity to power the reaction and produce hydrogen, which can be stored for use at night.

FULL PHOTO CAPTION: Members of Brookhaven Lab’s Chemistry and Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science departments: Front, from left; Kotaro Sasaki, Wei-Fu Chen, Nebojsa Marinkovic. Back from left; Yimei Zhu, Radoslav R. Adzic, and James T. Muckerman.

This article, written by Tina Casey, was originally published on TalkingPointsMemo, an editorial partner of GreenCarReports.


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Comments (13)
  1. That new catalyst looks like a terrific breakthrough, however is the manufacture of hydrogen by electrolyzing water with wind energized grid power as expensive as you have been thinking? In Germany, that technique has been jump started by combining hydrogen output with existing natural gas output for heating gas. That lets it have an immediate profit, even before H2-fuel-powered cars exist. The H2 production pays for itself early, and merely needs expansion as these cars add to the demand.

    But your “artificial leaf” (AL) device does sound promising for it too. Perhaps that could allow H2 production at home, without needing to draw grid power for it. (Continued)

  2. (Continued:)

    If both the less expensively catlyzed hydrogen (H2) fuel cell and/or the "Artificial Leaf" H2 generator become available, it sounds as if you have added a great deal to the future of the H2 fuel cell car!

  3. So this would make the inefficient process of producing hydrogen by electrolysis somewhat cheaper. The rule of thumb that BEV's go 3X further on a KWH of electricity than a hydrogen-by-electrolysis powered vehicle remains though.

    Anyway, cost of hydrogen is only one of the problems with the concept. Bigger obstacles like storage, distribution and the cost of fuelcells remain.

  4. You are not paying attention. The nickel-moly replaces the platinum in the fuel cell as well; the price drops.

    Storage is not an issue as you claim. Neither is distribution.


  5. Maybe you are getting that this could pertain to the fuel cells as well from rather confusing sentence:

    "If successfully commercialized, the new catalyst could have a powerful impact on the price of hydrogen, leading the way to a new generation of emission-free hydrogen-fueled vehicles as well as hydrogen fuel cells for many other uses".

    ....but the rest of the article only refers to the production of the gas, so I'm not convinced.

    Nor by your claims that neither storage nor distribution is a problem. Maybe this is a good start to educate yourself:

    According to energy secretary Steven Chu … If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely: saints only need three miracles...

  6. A hydrogen fuel cell and electrolysis are the reverse process of each other; their parts, of the process, are basically the same. Therefor, what goes for one can go for the other.

    Zubrin's data is flawed and misleading. He spends much of the article creating strawmen - scenarios the industry doesn't use. But if you agree with it so much, you should have no problem with alcohol as that is what he is supporting.

    I prefer to use data from people with hands-on-experience in the field of hydrogen rather than those who touch it only when it enfringes on their work. This usually entails minimum 30 years experience each.


  7. @Kid Marc: Am I understanding you properly? You suggest that no one can be knowledgeable about hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles without a minimum of *30 years* of experience in the field?

    If so...golly.

  8. @John,

    Sorry about that. Unfortunately ran out of characters due to the limit of 750, so some editing was in order. A little too much I'm afraid.

    As I stated, I prefer to use data from people with hands-on-experience in the field of hydrogen rather than those who touch it only when it enfringes on their work. It so happens that the people whose data I follow happen to have a minimum 30 years experience each in the field. Their data and testing have verified inaccuracies stated against hydrogen.


  9. Chris O, you are correct.

    Hydrogen is still a bad vehicle fuel since it's hard to store and there in no distribution mechanism.

    It's also true that electrolysis actually sucks in terms of efficiency. Making the catalyst cheaper doesn't lower the electricity cost of the process, which is what is so broken.

    The "artificial leaf" idea might someday solve that problem. Until then, we are far better off taking the electricity we make and putting it into batteries. Given that we are maybe 10 years from a 300-mile, sub $30K electric and a 500-mile sub-$40K electric, that seems the far more promising avenue.

  10. You misunderstood. Point was not to make a cheaper catalyst. That already exists and has been / is being used. The point is to make and use a catalyst of high efficiency as platinum at a very low price point, which is nickel-moly.


  11. This could be a phenomenal juncture for makers of stationary fuel cells with solar companies targeting areas that have plenty of south facing sunlight. Cars on batteries, homes on solar, nighttime electricity produced with hydrogen from water. Technology that allows homes to become the ultimate micro-grids and cars to drive pollutant free. Dang, sure wish I could clear up the static in my crystal ball, I'd tell you how this all ends.

  12. Despite short ranges and long recharges, BEVs bridge well toward H2 fuel cells’ convenience.
    Yes, H2 from high-energy carbon-based gases like methane or propane in fossil gas needs less added energy than electrolysis from gray-water but, in general, are these fuels more efficient than unused-wind-energized local grid power if including social costs from fossil-fuel's carbon ion entering atmosphere, ravaging lives and infrastructure. Ignoring, as "externalities", isn’t elimination.
    Do we lack an H2 distribution network? There’s one for fossil gas. Can’t H2 can join that, phasing out, over several years, the carbon compound component toward H2 of increasing purity: which fuel cells, furnaces, and ICEs can be periodically adjusted to.

  13. The risk to companies already heavily indebted from developmental costs for batteries' tenuous stability, can risk a social cost in lost jobs, but only temporarily, as they get offset by new fuel cells' advantages. They're made many times less expensive by replacing their costliest component, platinum’s $50,000/kg catalyst. Although tanks for H2 might need more space than gasoline, space will be left by displacing ICEs and bulky LI batteries.
    Power trains? How much revision would today's EV platform(s) need?
    Supplanting the, still young LI battery is competitive, free-market progress. Yes, resisting fuel cells' greater convenience is competitive; but progress? Long term, isn't forward vision wiser?
    Can GM survive more “EV-1"-like myopia?

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