The Hydrogen Economy Keeps Inching Towards Reality

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are being developed by Honda, Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and even General Motors here in the US. Oil and gas companies like Shell– companies with a massive, established infrastructure and deep, deep pockets- are pushing to build a hydrogen economy based on a plentiful, clean-burning element that could be cheaply produced using water and an inexpensive catalyst. Of course, that whole “cheap hydrogen from water-splitting” thing is basically science fiction, right? Hydrogen is too expensive, in practice, to ever be truly useful- that’s according to our sister site, Cleantechnica.

If you agree with that CT article I just linked to (you shouldn’t, by the way- it’s packed with straw men and clearly biased), then you probably haven’t been paying attention to news out of Texas, because researchers the University of Houston have developed a catalyst that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, is composed of easily available, low-cost materials, and operates far more efficiently than the most advanced catalysts of a few years days ago.


University of Houston Creates Cheap Hydrogen Catalyst

“Hydrogen is the cleanest primary energy source we have on earth,” explains Paul C. W. Chu, TLL Temple Chair of Science and founding director and chief scientist of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. “Water could be the most abundant source of hydrogen, if one could separate the hydrogen from its strong bond with oxygen in the water by using a catalyst.”

That’s what Chu and his team at UH seem to have done. Their new catalyst, which is composed of something called a “ferrous metaphosphate” that’s grown on a conductive nickel foam platform, is far not only more efficient than previous catalysts, it’s also cheaper to make and lasts a lot, lot longer- up to twenty times longer!

“Cost-wise, (the ferrous metaphosphate catalyst) is much lower. And, performance-wise, much better,” said Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson professor of physics and lead author on the UH paper. “The catalyst also is durable, operating more than 20 hours and 10,000 cycles in testing. Some catalysts are outstanding but are only stable for one or two hours,” Ren explains. “That’s no use.”

The UH researchers- smart people, by the way- argue that the lack of an inexpensive, water-splitting catalyst has created a “bottleneck” in the push towards a future hydrogen economy. One that’s been seemingly impossible to overcome for decades. Still, they feel that future is worth pursuing due to hydrogen’s many advantages as a fuel. “H2 produced from water splitting by an electrochemical process, called water electrolysis, has been considered to be a clean and sustainable energy resource to replace fossil fuels and meet the rising global energy demand, since water is both the sole starting material and byproduct when clean energy is produced by converting H2 back to water,” the researchers write. Adding that, “unlike solar power, wind power and other ‘clean’ energy, hydrogen can be easily stored.”

Easily stored, and easily distributed by modifying the existing gas station model. That is, if the Hindenburg-less implementation of hydrogen stations in Japan and California over the last few years is to be believed, anyway.

That’s just me, I guess: looking for solutions that could help reduce carbon emissions and our dependency on fossil fuels and economic machinations beyond the understanding of mere mortals like myself. What about you guys? You’re smart. You read this far. Are you excited about the possibility of filling up a zero-emission vehicle with clean-burning H2 on your next thousand mile road trip? Would you feel better about hydrogen if The Bad Guys didn’t seem so interested in seeing it succeed? There’s a comments section at the bottom of the page- put it to good use by letting us know!


Source | Images: University of Houston.

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, out on two wheels, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.