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Nanosheet catalyst brings a hydrogen economy one step closer to reality

By

July 27, 2012

Wei-Fu Chen examines the atomic structure of the platinum alternative electrocatalyst

Wei-Fu Chen examines the atomic structure of the platinum alternative electrocatalyst

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Harnessing the power of hydrogen gas presents one of the most promising options available for obtaining a large-scale sustainable energy solution. However, there are numerous and significant challenges present in the production of pure hydrogen, one of the most prominent of which is the high costs associated with the use of rare and expensive chemical elements such as platinum. Accordingly, the team at the Brookhaven National Laboratory set out to create a catalyst with high activity and low costs, that could facilitate the production of hydrogen as a high-density, clean energy source.

The key component in the production of pure hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet. Water provides a cheap and plentiful source and is free of harmful greenhouse gas by-products. Electrolysis, or the splitting of water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2), requires an external source of electricity and an efficient catalyst. It's the latter of these that causes the difficulties.

An effective catalyst has to combine high catalytic activity, high durability and high surface area. The most effective material for use as the catalyst for electrolysis is platinum: a highly expensive commodity. The rising cost of platinum (currently around US$50,000 per kilogram) has gone a long way to discouraging widespread investment in the production of hydrogen gas.

However, the high cost isn't the only issue associated with use of the rare element. James Muckerman, senior chemist on the project, said “People love platinum, but the limited global supply not only drives up price, but casts doubt on its long-term viability ... There may not be enough of it to support a global hydrogen economy”.

Creating an alternative to platinum presents a significant challenge. The strength of an element's bond to hydrogen determines its level of reaction – too strong and the initial activity will poison the catalyst, too weak and there is little or no activity. “We needed to create high, stable activity by combining one non-noble element that binds hydrogen too weakly with another that binds too strongly," said Muckerman.

Magnification of the nickel-molybdenum-nitride catalyst, detailing the unexpected nanoshee...

Magnification of the nickel-molybdenum-nitride catalyst, detailing the unexpected nanosheet structure

The new catalyst is initially made up of nickel and metallic molybdenum, but the resulting compound is still unable to match the performance levels of platinum. To solve this issue, nitrogen is introduced through a complicated procedure in which the compound is subjected to a high-temperature ammonia environment. This process infuses the nickel-molybdenum with the nitrogen, but also produces an unexpected result.

Nitrogen has been used for similar applications in the past, but only for bulk materials, or objects larger than one micrometer. When applying the element for use on nanoscale materials, with dimensions measuring billionths of a meter, the reaction transformed the resulting compound into unexpected two-dimensional nanosheets. These structures provide highly accessible reactive sites, and therefore more reacting potential. The paper's lead author, Wei-Fu Chen, comments on the resulting compound, stating that “Nitrogen has made a huge difference – it expanded the lattice of nickel-molybdenum, increased its electron density, made an electronic structure approaching that of noble metals, and prevented corrosion."

The Brookhaven National Laboratory research team

The Brookhaven National Laboratory research team

The combined cost of the components required for the compound is about one one-thousandth that of platinum, but with a comparable (though slightly lower) performance level. The production process is also simple and scalable, making it viable for industrial applications.

Although this new compound falls short of providing a complete solution to the multi-faceted challenge of creating affordable hydrogen gas, it does provide a significant reduction in the cost of the required materials. “We needed to figure out fundamental approaches that could potentially be game-changing, and that's the spirit in which we're doing this work," said Muckerman. "It's about coming up with a new paradigm that will guide future research”.

It's all about fundamental exploration, without which the surprising discovery of the nanosheet structure would never have been made.

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

About the Author
Chris Wood Chris recently graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Politics and Ancient History. Based in the U.K., he has an enthusiasm for technology of all kinds, specializing in mobile tech and games. In his spare time you might find him running, playing music, following NFL (Pats fan) or fueling his ever growing Swiss watch obsession.   All articles by Chris Wood
12 Comments

ermm

Aluminium?!?

cheep and recyclable...

I think we need more research/ideas in transportation and manipulation of Hydrogen gas

Facebook User
27th July, 2012 @ 07:46 am PDT

The article refers to hydrogen as an energy source (first paragraph) and as a "solution." Hydrogen COSTS energy. Yes, it can be useful as a way to store or transport energy, but it always consumes energy from some other source.

piperTom
27th July, 2012 @ 08:11 am PDT

You guys are spoiled by hydrocarbons.

Burning hydrocarbons introduces CO2 from millions of years ago.

CO2 that is melting the ice caps and sinking NYC.

Yes, you have to put energy in H to get energy out.

Nothing's for free. Put it in now, or 100 million in the past.

BTW, Aluminum is unsuitable, the definition of a catalyst is that it doesn't degrade or corrode in use. Aluminum will corrode, and contaminate the gas rindering it useless.

Kenneth.Spicer
27th July, 2012 @ 12:24 pm PDT

keep up the research, have you tried using Palladium I recall it acts as a sponge for Hydrogen, as for storage there have been several substances created to hold hydrogen safely.

Graham Winks HomeMaint
27th July, 2012 @ 04:45 pm PDT

Graham Palladium is almost as rare and expensive as platinum. And yes they have tried it

Kenneth? Hydrocarbons are the key to life. Plants, you, me, food, you name it are hydrocarbons. I think you are suggesting that the gas we burn is millions of years old. That is disputable but really insignificant. the ice caps have been melting before the industrial age, NY is not sinking. Even when the ice caps are gone there will be little or no effect on coastal cities.

I am not suggesting nothing will change.. Things will change, just as they have done for billions of years.

I have no idea what you are suggesting by aluminum corroding and contaminating the gas.

No one in the article is suggesting that Hydrogen is magically creating energy. They are suggesting hydrogen is a source of energy just like any fuel source.

Our previous president stated hydrogen is the key energy source in the future. I look forward to him being proven correct.

Michael Mantion
27th July, 2012 @ 09:33 pm PDT

@Kenneth.Spicer

I wasn't talking about electrocatalyst

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alchemy_Research

Facebook User
28th July, 2012 @ 12:23 am PDT

Hydrogen will never be a high-density energy carrier; it will require an entire new infrastructure unless it is converted into hydrocarbon fuels but if we get the energy source that could make hydrogen a viable mass market energy carrier the additional energy input to convert it into methane and then into room temp & pressure liquids is trivial and I will welcome the clean nuclear future.

Slowburn
29th July, 2012 @ 08:18 pm PDT

I can make all the H2 I want from waste biomess heating it to 1500F for mostly H2/CO but just what does one do with it that couldn't be better done with the source energy?

Let's not forget the eff of the whole H2 cycle. Even in the most eff foolcells are only 50% eff. Higher power ones needing many pumps, etc are lower still. Facts are most eff ICE's are as eff as a foolcell when you take it all into account.

Now the eff of making H2 from a high order energy like electricity especially to later make electricity. And how do you store it?

H2 is an energy carrier and not a very good one. The only people pushing it are those who are trying to profit off of it. No one who does the numbers is for H2. Though iin some chemical process this could be very helpful, it's not going to ever be a H2 economy unless we want to waste 50% of our energy.

jerryd
30th July, 2012 @ 10:05 am PDT

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. That's true.

However, it is incredibly appealing in that it could potentially be generated from solar energy. That is where materials like this come in and are so important.

Further, it has very little emissions. The product of it's combustion is just water. It is a potentially sustainable fuel, which is something that we currently lack.

Of course an infrastructure change will be necessary, but that kind of comes with moving away from a resource that drives an economy.

It'll be expensive, for sure. But ultimately, if we are to preserve our lifestyles, we will move toward a hydrogen economy. Research like this catalyzes that process.

ugachemist
30th July, 2012 @ 10:37 am PDT

platinoids li palad are rare and they are even more of a trouble to refine singularly. The idea of a CATALYST is, lest some forgot or never knew, the purpose is to minimize the energy required to make hydrogen "fuel." Hell if you want to get technical, oil derivatives also require energy inputs to become our fuels! It is a question of overall and exact math, not just some disparaging remarks about "costs" of obtaning the resource.

waltinseattle
30th July, 2012 @ 06:54 pm PDT

re; waltinseattle

Refining a barrel of oil into fuel and chemical feedstock requires less energy than the barrel of oil provides and is thus energy positive. Separating hydrogen out of water requires more energy than the hydrogen contains and is thus energy negative. Therefor gasoline is the economic fuel choice even before you add in the costs of compressing or liquifying the hydrogen for storage and/or transportation.

Given current technology Hydrogen as an energy delivery device is worse for the environment than than gasoline and diesel. currently electrical consumption is rising faster than electrical generation and adding electric and/or electric derived hydrogen to the mix will bring the system to its limit even faster.

Slowburn
31st July, 2012 @ 12:22 am PDT

I'm not sure if all of the naysayers to hydrogen as a fuel source even read this whole article. This discovery may not solve the hydrogen conundrum, but it sure is a step in the right direction. Combined advances in solar power with hydrogen fuel and nano technologies is going to create a breakthrough eventually.

Gene Jordan
3rd August, 2012 @ 11:18 am PDT
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