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Silicon nanoparticles could lead to on-demand hydrogen generation


January 23, 2013

Spherical silicon nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter that can generate hydrogen on-demand when combined with water (Photo: Swihart Research Group, University at Buffalo)

Spherical silicon nanoparticles about 10 nanometers in diameter that can generate hydrogen on-demand when combined with water (Photo: Swihart Research Group, University at Buffalo)

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Researchers at the University of Buffalo have created spherical silicon nanoparticles they claim could lead to hydrogen generation on demand becoming a “just add water” affair. When the particles are combined with water, they rapidly form hydrogen and silicic acid, a nontoxic byproduct, in a reaction that requires no light, heat or electricity. In experiments, the hydrogen produced was shown to be relatively pure by successfully being used to power a small fan via a small fuel cell.

According to the team’s study, the 10-nanometer diameter particles created hydrogen 1,000 times faster than similar reactions using bulk silicon and up to 150 times faster than silicon particles 100 nanometers wide, yielding more hydrogen in under a minute than the 100-nanometer particles yielded in around 45 minutes. This gives the smaller particles the potential to generate hydrogen on-demand for use in fuel cells to power portable devices.

“It was previously unknown that we could generate hydrogen this rapidly from silicon, one of Earth’s most abundant elements,” said Folarin Erogbogbo, first author of the study. “Safe storage of hydrogen has been a difficult problem even though hydrogen is an excellent candidate for alternative energy, and one of the practical applications of our work would be supplying hydrogen for fuel cell power.

According to Mark T. Swihart, UB professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the university’s Strategic Strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems, the speed of the reaction is due to the spherical shape of the 10-nanometer particles. This is because larger particles form nonspherical structures that react less uniformly and readily with the water than the surfaces of the smaller, spherical particles.

“With further development, this technology could form the basis of a ‘just add water’ approach to generating hydrogen on demand,” said researcher Paras Prasad, executive director of UB’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics (ILPB). “The most practical application would be for portable energy sources.”

The downside is the significant amount of energy and resources required to produce the smaller silicon particles. This would make the particles expensive and likely rule them out for widespread use in powering consumer electronic devices – at least initially. However, the researchers say the technology could find applications in situations where water is available and portability is more important than cost, such as camping and military operations.

“Perhaps instead of taking a gasoline or diesel generator and fuel tanks or large battery packs with me to the campsite (civilian or military) where water is available, I take a hydrogen fuel cell (much smaller and lighter than the generator) and some plastic cartridges of silicon nanopowder mixed with an activator,” Swihart added. “Then I can power my satellite radio and telephone, GPS, laptop, lighting, etc. If I time things right, I might even be able to use excess heat generated from the reaction to warm up some water and make tea.”

The team’s study is published in the journal Nano Letters.

Source: University of Buffalo

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Presumably if one dropped some of these particles into drains in the road, one could then throw in a match and blow up a whole street! Don't tell the terrorists!


Interesting but how much would the energy equivalent of a kilo of diesel weigh?


Incidentally if water is available you could use calcium carbide and generate acetylene gas on demand. without the danger of hauling gasoline or diesel. You can't use fuel cells or ICE so the generator would have to be driven by Stirling cycle or steam engine.


How easy or difficult is it to revert the silicon after the chemical reaction? Would it be worthwhile in the sense of energy &/or chemicals consumed to do the reversion? I'm wondering if this could be reusable like a battery has multiple charge/discharge cycles. Fascinating science :)


The silicic acid byproduct is utterly organic - its ortho form is widely used to create skeletal frameworks for marine organisms. So you're producing a raw form of sea shell. Just add a 3D printer and you have a combined energy generator and construction engine. What's not to like?

Andrew Palfreyman
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