Researchers identify cheaper catalyst for hydrogen generation

Researchers identify cheaper catalyst for hydrogen generation

Researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have highlighted a catalyst which can generate hydrogen in a commercial device at a lower price.

The catalyst can split water and generate hydrogen for hours in the harsh environment of a commercial device.  The electrolyser technology is based on a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) and has potential for large-scale hydrogen production powered by renewable energy.

The technology has previously been held back due to the high cost of metal catalysts required to boost the chemical reactions.

“Hydrogen gas is a massively important industrial chemical for making fuel and fertiliser, among other things,” said Thomas Jaramillo, Director of the SUNCAT Centre for Interface Science and Catalysis who led the research team.

“It’s also a clean, high-energy-content molecule that can be used in fuel cells or to store energy generated by variable power sources like solar and wind. But most of the hydrogen produced today is made with fossil fuels, adding to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. We need a cost-effective way to produce it with clean energy.”

The new device was manufactured by a PEM electrolysis research site and factory in Connecticut for Nel Hydrogen.

Commercial electrolyser used in the experiments
© Nel Hydrogen

The electrolysis process uses electrical current to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The reactions that generate hydrogen in oxygen gas take place on different electrodes using different precious metal catalysts.

In this case, Nel Hydrogen replaced the platinum catalyst on the hydrogen-generating side with a catalyst consisting of cobalt phosphide nanoparticles deposited on carbon to form a fine black power, which was produced by researchers at SLAC and Stanford.

“Our group has been studying this catalyst and related materials for a while,” said McKenzie Hubert, Graduate Student in Jaramillo’s group.

“We took it from a fundamental lab-scale, experimental stage through testing it under industrial operating conditions, where you need to cover a much larger surface area with the catalyst, and it has to function under much more challenging conditions.”

Katherine Ayers, Vice-President for Research and Development at Nel and Co-Author of the paper, said, “The performance of the cobalt phosphide catalyst needs to get a little bit better, and its synthesis would need to be scaled up.”

“But I was quite surprised at how stable these materials were. Even though their efficiency in generating hydrogen was lower than platinum’s, it was constant. A lot of things would degrade in that environment.”

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