Researchers from the University of Connecticut are pushing toward a hydrogen economy with the development of a new catalyst for cheaper, light-weight hydrogen fuel cells.

The catalyst — made of graphene nanotubes infused with sulfur — could potentially work to make hydrogen capture more commercially viable.

This development comes during a time where many people are looking to hydrogen in the search for a new, sustainable energy source. While hydrogen may be abundant, it often requires a costly and energy-consuming process to produce. However, if scientists could find an affordable and efficient way to capture hydrogen, it may begin to shift society away from the fossil fuel-driven economy toward a hydrogen economy.

The material developed by the University of Connecticut professors currently shows results that are competitive with some of the top materials traditionally used in these processes, but at a fraction of the cost.

The secret lies in the non-metal catalyst that has many of the same electrochemical properties as rare earth materials.


In an effort to move away from fossil fuels toward a renewable future, researchers have invested time and resources into developing hydrogen fuel. The most efficient way to create this sustainable fuel has been through water-splitting, but the process is not perfect. Now, researchers from MIT, the Skoltech Institute of Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin believe they may have made a breakthrough that could lead to the widespread adoption of water-splitting to produce hydrogen fuel.

The key discovery in the paper published in Nature Communications is the mobilization of oxygen atoms from the crystal surface of perovskite-oxide electrodes to participate in the formation of oxygen gas, which can speed up water-splitting reactions.

The breakthrough could be a crucial step in helping the energy infrastructure efficiently move away from traditional energy sources to renewables.

“The generation of oxygen from water remains a significant bottleneck in the development of water electrolyzers and also in the development of fuel cell and metal-air battery technologies,” said J. Tyler Mefford, current ECS member and lead author of the study.

But the new results didn’t come out of the woodwork. The data illustrates collaborative work across experimental and theoretical fields. The new work essentially explains over 40 years of theory and experiments, looking at why some approaches worked and others failed.

“If we could develop catalysts made with Earth-abundant materials that could reversibly and efficiently electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, we could have affordable hydrogen generation from renewables — and with that, the possibility of electric cars that run on water with ranges similar to gas powered cars,” Mefford said.

Hydrogen Meets Lithium Ion Batteries

When it comes to energy storage, hydrogen is becoming more and more promising. From hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to the “artificial leaf” to the transformation of waste heat into hydrogen, researchers are looking to hydrogen for answers to the growing demand for energy storage.

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), researchers are using hydrogen to make lithium ion batteries operate longer and have faster transport rates.

In a response to the need for higher performance batteries, the researchers began by looking for a way to achieve better capacity, voltage, and energy density. Those qualities are primarily determined by the binding between lithium ions and electrode material. Small changes to the structure and chemistry of the electrode can mean big things for the qualities of the lithium ion battery.

The research team from LLNL discovered that by subtly changing the electrode, treating it with hydrogen, lithium ion batteries could have higher capacities and faster transport levels.

“These findings provide qualitative insights in helping the design of graphene-based materials for high-power electrodes,” said Morris Wang, an LLNL materials scientist and co-author of the paper.


How Heat Becomes Hydrogen

More than half energy produced annually—whether it’s heat, gas, biomass, or methane—is wasted. Harvesting the wasted  heat energy could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent. Researchers from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State are looking for new, environmentally friendly ways to harvest and recycle this wasted energy in an effort to create hydrogen gas.

“Existing methods are already very effective at making hydrogen gas,” says Bruce Logan, Evan Pugh Professor of Environmental Engineering. “The problem is that these methods consume fossil fuels in order to generate enough energy to create the hydrogen gas.”

By producing hydrogen gas via waste heat, the researchers eliminate the need for fossil fuels in production.

“Since the new system runs on waste heat, it is effectively carbon neutral and fossil fuel neutral,” says Logan.


Development to Boost Solar Cell Usage


A working cell from Switzer’s research, with gas evolution.
Image: Sam O’Keefe, Missouri S&T.

In order to satisfy growing energy demands, scientists are looking for ways to develop and deploy a broad range of alternative energy sources that can be both efficient and environmentally friendly. At Missouri University of Science and Technology, a team is working to make clean energy more accessible through the development of a cheap, simple way to split hydrogen and oxygen through a new electrodeposition method.

ECS member and head researcher in the project, Jay Switzer, believes that the new development will produce highly efficient solar cells. He and ECS student member James Hill predict the process will be able to effectively gather solar energy for use as fuel, further increasing the amount of hydrogen available for fuel usage.

“The work helps to solve the problem that solar energy is intermittent,” says Switzer. “Obviously, we cannot have the sun produce energy on one spot the entire day, but our process converts the energy into a form that is more easily stored.”

Electrodeposition for Hydrogen

This from Missouri University of Science and Technology:

Switzer and his team use silicon wafers to absorb solar energy. The silicon is submerged in water, with the front surface exposed to a solar energy simulator and the back surface covered in electrodes to conduct the energy. The silicon has cobalt nano-islands formed onto it using a process called electrodeposition.


Record-Breaking Energy Efficiency Levels

An interdisciplinary team has set a new record for direct solar water splitting efficiency. Surpassing the 17 year old record of 12.4 percent, the new achieved efficiency level of 14 percent guarantees a promising future for solar hydrogen production.

While the potential for renewable energy is available across the globe, the ability to harvest and store this energy is not. One solution to achieving global renewable energy is through artificial photosynthesis.

How to Power the Future

Much like organic photosynthesis, artificial photosynthesis coverts sunlight into chemical energy. This highly-researched concept also has the ability to be carried into semiconductor technology.

Essentially, researchers can take the sun’s electrical power and split water into oxygen and hydrogen with high energy density levels. This type of development has the potential to replace current fossil fuels and create a type of energy that does not emit harmful carbon dioxide.

The concept has not been utilized on a commercial level due to the high cost. However, this new development could raise the efficiency levels to a high enough percentage to make the process economically viable.

This from the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres:

Lead author Matthias May … processed and surveyed about one hundred samples in his excellent doctoral dissertation to achieve this. The fundamental components are tandem solar cells of what are known as III-V semiconductors. Using a now patented photo-electrochemical process, May could modify certain surfaces of these semiconductor systems in such a way that they functioned better in water splitting.


ECS’s Nate Lewis is propelling his vision of efficient and affordable alternative energy sources with the new development of an “artificial leaf” system that splits water through solar energy to create hydrogen fuel.

(PS: Make sure to catch Nate Lewis’ presentation this October at the fifth international Electrochemical Energy Summit held during the 228th ECS Meeting!)

“This new system shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more,” says Lewis, a 33-year ECS member and scientific director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.

Shattering Water Splitting Records

He and his team, including postdoctoral scholar and ECS member Ke Sun, were able to achieve recording-setting outcomes through the development of a advice with three novel components: two electrodes, one photoanode and one photocathode, and a membrane.

This from Futurity:

The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules, generating protons and electrons as well as oxygen gas. The photocathode recombines the protons and electrons to form hydrogen gas.


Solving the Beach Explosion Mystery

hydrogenRecently, a small explosion occurred underneath the sand at a Rhode Island beach. When state police and a bomb squad couldn’t figure out what caused the blast, researchers from the University of Rhode Island decided to make an attempt at solving the mystery.

The school’s oceanography interdisciplinary team—made up of researchers with expertise in everything from geology to chemistry—was able to pinpoint an unlikely culprit in the beach explosion: hydrogen.

An Unlikely Investigation

The researchers first began to suspect hydrogen when they discovered an underground uncorroded copper cable at the site, which could create hydrogen though an electrochemical process.

“The copper was like a shiny new penny, and the steel was silvery, even though it had been in seawater for many years,” said Professor Arthur Spivack of the University of Rhode Island. “That told me that it was consistent with there being a slight negative voltage in that end of the cable, which protects it from corroding but also could produce hydrogen.”


First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ferry

The high-speed hydrogen fuel cell ferry boat is set to hit the waters of the San Francisco Bay Area.Image: Green Car Reports

The high-speed hydrogen fuel cell ferry boat is set to hit the waters of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Image: Green Car Reports

Diesel burning vehicles in the U.S. alone emit pollutants that lead to 21,000 premature deaths each year and act as one of the largest drivers of climate change. The traditional ferry typically burns around one million liters of diesel fuel each year—producing 570 tons of carbon dioxide. In order to help combat this issue, Sandia National Laboratories and the Red and White Fleet ferry company are joining forces to create the first hydrogen fuel cell ferry boat to hit the waters of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Currently in the early stages of development, the boat is set to be named SF BREEZE—an acronym for “San Francisco Bay Renewable Energy Electric vessel with Zero Emissions.” As far as consumption goes, the researchers believe it will take about 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of hydrogen per day to power the ship.

ICYMI: Listen to Subhash Singhal, a world-leader in the study of fuel cells, talk about the future of energy and climate change.

To satisfy this demand, the construction of the world’s largest hydrogen fueling station will begin off shore and will have the ability to service both sea and land vehicles.

But this isn’t Siemens first take on zero emission ferries. Earlier this year, the lab developed the technology for the world’s first electrically-powered ferry in Norway. This ship has already hit the water successfully, causing no carbon dioxide emissions.

PS: We’re currently accepting abstracts for the 229th ECS Meeting in San Diego! Submit today!

Researcher from Stanford University have developed a new device that has made water-splitting more practical and boosted efficiency levels to an unprecedented 82 percent.

With just one catalyst, the novel water-splitting device can continuously generate hydrogen and oxygen for more than 200 hours with a steady input of just 1.5 volts of electricity.

Through this new device, researchers can produce renewable sources of clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The Stanford researchers are using just one catalyst instead of the traditional two in water-splitting processes, which allows the cost to drop significantly.

“For practical water splitting, an expensive barrier is needed to separate the two electrolytes, adding to the cost of the device. But our single-catalyst water splitter operates efficiently in one electrolyte with a uniform pH,” said Haotian Wang, lead author of the study and graduate student at Stanford.


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