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Canada Technology Science

New Catalyst Allows Cheaper Hydrogen Production 191

Posted by timothy
from the keeping-the-attic-warm dept.
First time accepted submitter CanadianRealist writes "Electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen is very inefficient without the use of a catalyst. Unfortunately catalysts are currently made of crystals containing rare, expensive toxic metals such as ruthenium and iridium. Two chemists from the University of Calgary have invented a process to make a catalyst using relatively non-toxic metal compounds such as iron oxide, for 1/1000 the cost of currently used catalysts. It is suggested this would make it more feasible to use electrolysis of water to create hydrogen as a method of storing energy from variable green power sources such as wind and solar."
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New Catalyst Allows Cheaper Hydrogen Production

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  • Nonsense. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Saturday March 30, 2013 @01:54AM (#43316809)

    There may be some benefit to lowering the cost of electrolysis, but the real problem is still the cost of fuel cells, or the inefficiency of producing power from the hydrogen through conventional means.

    • Re:Nonsense. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by theshowmecanuck (703852) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:11AM (#43316835) Journal
      If you lower the cost of the fuel enough, the cost of the engine becomes moot.
      • Re:Nonsense. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:48AM (#43316929)

        Cheap fuel means you can spend a little more on the system, sure, but there are limits.

        In stationary power plants this is true, but cars have to move. A moving power plant has to worry about its power-to-weight ratio, and its power-to-volume ratio. Would you really want to drive a minivan that seats two people just to have a cheap fuel cell?

        • Re:Nonsense. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 30, 2013 @05:38AM (#43317237)

          Cheap fuel means you can spend a little more on the system, sure, but there are limits.

          In stationary power plants this is true, but cars have to move. A moving power plant has to worry about its power-to-weight ratio, and its power-to-volume ratio. Would you really want to drive a minivan that seats two people just to have a cheap fuel cell?

          So use it for stationary power plants. Wind and such tend to produce energy when it's not needed; this would be an excellent way to mitigate that.

          • Here is a link http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-03/uoc-dod032113.php [eurekalert.org]. It mentions a beer refrigerator size unit. I would imagine that would be smaller than a normal refrigerator. I live near a water pumped storage unit. They are investing close to a billion dollars in changing the turbine blades. They also built 56 windmills here at a cost of around 250 million dollars. It would seem to me that the money spent for the blades would be better spent on the home units since they would be much c
            • It mentions a beer refrigerator size unit. I would imagine that would be smaller than a normal refrigerator.

              Depends on how much beer you have.

              • by kwbauer (1677400)

                Yeah, I could park my SUV in the beer refrigerator at the convenience store down the street.

        • by gatkinso (15975)

          >> Would you really want to drive a minivan that seats two people just to have a cheap fuel cell?

          Yes.

        • "A moving power plant has to worry about its power-to-weight ratio, and its power-to-volume ratio. "

          Actually, studies have shown that the make-or-break factor for hydrogen isn't the vehicle, it's long-term storage and transport of the gas.

          The other issues (storage tanks for vehicles, power-to-weight ratios, etc.) have all been sufficiently solved. Allow hydrogen to be economically produced at local plants, and you have a viable fuel.

        • by Darinbob (1142669)

          Would you really want to drive a minivan that seats two people just to have a cheap fuel cell?

          Confused here. What's the problem? Why would anyone care?

      • by khallow (566160)

        If you lower the cost of the fuel enough, the cost of the engine becomes moot.

        No, high fixed costs can trump low variable costs easily. Keep in mind opportunity costs. You could have put that money into something else, like an investment, rather than an expensive engine. So a cheap engine with moderate fuel costs can beat a very expensive engine with no fuel costs.

        • You are not factoring in time and are assuming the money is disposable. Over a longer period of time the fuel costs will add up to more than the expensive engine. Assume we need the engine now and your investment won't pay off for years. You don't get the return till way after you have gained the return and benefit of the more expensive engine. And most people don't factor in today's real cost in the investment... i.e. the return dollars in the future are cheaper than today's dollars.

          Never mind factors like

          • by khallow (566160)

            You are not factoring in time and are assuming the money is disposable.

            No way. You aren't factoring in time. I already explained how I factor in (and you should as well) time via the "opportunity cost" investment. There's also the closely related concept of time value of money, where it is better to have money now than later, all else being equal.

            And of course, money is fungible. That's one of the prime features of money. We don't need the hugely expensive engine now and we can find an investment that pays off in the near future rather than some distant future.

            Never mind factors like, will the moderate priced engine have higher operation and consequential costs?

            Why of course

    • Good for rocket fuel, perhaps? Although there's still the cost of storage

      • Generally most hydrogen is produced from breaking down natural gas. So this won't really impact rocket fuel until it can get hydrogen produced by electrolysis below that of natural gas. With the glut from fracking, I don't see this happening, as alot of our energy now is generated from natural gas. Generating energy from natural gas to use it to split water is likely not as efficient as stripping off the hydrogen directly.

    • Re:Nonsense. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sjames (1099) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @03:26AM (#43317021) Homepage

      Transportation and storage are huge problems as well. Tiny leaks that don't really matter for methane or propane would be a big problem for hydrogen. Meanwhile, hydrogen makes metals brittle.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by slick7 (1703596)

        Transportation and storage are huge problems as well. Tiny leaks that don't really matter for methane or propane would be a big problem for hydrogen. Meanwhile, hydrogen makes metals brittle.

        Like everything the fuels industry touches, it will make water more expensive than it already is.

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          Like everything the fuels industry touches, it will make water more expensive than it already is.

          Water expensive? Maybe in a desert, but everywhere else, distilled water falls from the sky. Most of the Earth's surface is good old dihydrogen monoxide. How is the fuels industry making water expensive?

        • Excess heat from nuclear power plans is sometimes used to make fresh water from seawater.
      • For sure, this would be one of the biggest hurdles I think. Most people assume a gas is a gas is a gas. The average person needs to understand that it is like the difference between a fishnet bag holding bowling balls versus a fishnet bag holding baseballs. You need smaller holes to keep baseballs in. And current economical storage will need even tighter tolerances for hydrogen. I wonder about ceramic or carbon fibre lining and/or valves to solve the brittle part. Or one for the valves and another for a li
        • by sjames (1099)

          It might actually make a lot more sense to process the hydrogen along with a carbon source into a more readily usable fuel. We know quite a lot about transporting methane and propane.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      It looks like I'm a bit more ignorant than I thought. Hello, wikipedia?

      Electrolysis

      Currently, the majority of hydrogen (â¼95%) is produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming or partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification with only a small quantity by other routes such as biomass gasification or electrolysis of water.[14] There are three main types of cells, solid oxide electrolysis cells (SOEC's), polymer electrolyte membrane cells (PEM) and alkaline electrolysis cells (AEC's). SOEC's ope

      • Nope, I'm still ignorant. I thought all it took was a DC current and saltwater, with oxygen bubbling from one lead and hydrogen from the other?

        Can one of you guys enlighten me? I hate being ignorant.

        You are more or less right. That does work. However, the question is not just whether you can do it, but also how fast it happens and how much energy is lost in the process. Catalysts, like the one in the article, reduce energy barriers / increase the probability of a reaction and so make the whole thing more efficient. That can take things from "theoretically interesting" to "profitable industry".

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        Nope, I'm still ignorant. I thought all it took was a DC current and saltwater, with oxygen bubbling from one lead and hydrogen from the other?

        That is all it takes and makes for a great science lab demonstration.
        Unfortunately, the process it not terribly efficient in its usage of electricity.
        Using a catalyst allows you to get the same or more [output] from your reaction.

        Where the catalyst is used depends on whatever works.
        Sometimes it's the anode or cathode, sometimes it's in your electrolyte solution, and sometimes it's an electrolyte plate.

    • I'm not sure it will lower the cost much, the articles seemed misleading, the catalysts are 1000X cheaper, not the resulting processing + costs. If the catalyst is 1000X cheaper, but poison quickly you might barely make break-even. Efficiency of the amortized costs is more important.

      • My thought was that maybe the existing catalysts poison very quickly so the added cost is in constantly replacing them. Also in the scarcity of them. If you can make many, many cheap commercial scale electrolyzers for the same price as one using rare earth metals (which may poison at the same rate) this might account for the price savings. Would like to see some of these figures too.
  • It might be helpful. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mr. Chow (2860963) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @01:55AM (#43316813)
    You never know. If the catalysts are relatively cheap, instead of trucking or piping hydrogen to stations to fill up people's cars, you could generate the hydrogen from water and electricity on site. That might be safer because you may not have to store a large amount of hydrogen and the infrastructure is already there (the water and electricity I mean). Of course, that does not solve the storage problem in cars nor the fact that water and electricity aren't free, nor the relatively low efficiency of using hydrogen as a fuel...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Even better, if you can generate hydrogen with a large efficiency, it might be more efficient to transport the gas, instead of electricity.

      People seem to think that electricity is efficient. In practice, very large amounts are lost during transport, and not only during production.

      At a certain point, it may be more efficient to transport a fuel, and not only for 'mobile' use. We already do so with natural gas, there is no reason not to do so with hydrogen. Maybe not on a household scale, but to local small-s

      • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:53AM (#43316941) Homepage Journal

        People seem to think that electricity is efficient. In practice, very large amounts are lost during transport, and not only during production.

        Less than 5% of the power in the US is lost in transmission. This is significant, but hydrogen has many special problems which will probably make your idea a non-starter for the foreseeable future.

        • by Internetuser1248 (1787630) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @06:37AM (#43317343)

          Less than 5% of the power in the US is lost in transmission. This is significant, but hydrogen has many special problems which will probably make your idea a non-starter for the foreseeable future.

          Problems such as the fact that hydrogen electrolysis loses way more than 5% of the energy. It was around 50% last time I checked and most of the new research that gets mentioned on slashdot completely fails to mention efficiency at all leading me to believe they have not improved it.

          • If your harvesting wind-turbine power during non-demand times, what's better 1.25 MW @ 15% = 180 KW or 0MW @ 75% = 0KW ? Maybe the money earned isn't enough to offset the added wear and tear on the turbine or maybe it's what it takes to push wind-farms into the realm of economic feasibility; some brave souls will have to find out.

            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              It's been tried, but they only used it to run on-site generators. And that's the rub; using the hydrogen on-site is not a winning proposition because it's expensive and inefficient, and transporting the hydrogen is a non-starter. We have significant trouble maintaining electrical lines and they are ever so much simpler than a gas pipeline. The pipelines we use to transport oil fail all the time, and they are far simpler than a hydrogen pipeline would be. We have the technology to build pipelines that "never

      • by mpe (36238) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @05:01AM (#43317163)
        At a certain point, it may be more efficient to transport a fuel, and not only for 'mobile' use. We already do so with natural gas, there is no reason not to do so with hydrogen.

        Hydrogen is a much smaller molecule than methane which means that it's harder to make pipes and tanks which don't leak. In addition it reacts with a lot of things methane dosn't react with. So there is less choice of materials to make those pipes and tanks out of.
      • by Khalid (31037)

        Or you can generate liquid fuels (methanol, ethanol, gasoline, diesel) using Fischer and Tropsch style reactions which has been making a lot of progress lately. It's a better way to transport hydrogene.

        • by suutar (1860506)
          yeah, when I got to this point I was wondering if splitting water more easily would improve water+CO2 -> hydrocarbon efficiency. (guessing probably some but maybe not much)
  • by slack_justyb (862874) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:05AM (#43316821)
    Hydrogen is a very poor storage for energy. It takes a lot of energy to get a small amount of hydrogen and takes a lot of hydrogen just to store a small amount of energy. We are better off with the current system of pumping water up a hill than with anything hydrogen can give us. You need a more energy dense fuel to compete, and using the least dense thing in the universe is the dumbest idea. Pair that with the fact that hydrogen is an atomic whore and binds strongly to everything. Making it that more difficult to get it all by itself.
  • by SpaghettiPattern (609814) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:36AM (#43316903)
    Cheap hydrogen? This lad here only settles for premium. Not only are the atoms more shiny but all my my friends use it and I really want to be part of the in crowd.
  • Hype as usual (Score:5, Informative)

    by JaWiB (963739) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @02:36AM (#43316905)

    Basically the same catalysts have been reported previously [acs.org]. In this new paper, they don't bother to highlight the fact that their films are extremely thick, so of course they get great catalytic activity (though it's an oxide, so the series resistance might just be a problem...)

    • I don't know if you missed it in this case they take this catalyst and deposit it on a light sensitive substrate lattice. When it has finished depositing they shine a light on it which dissolves the substrate leaving a porous amorphous catalyst structure. They think the added surface area helps it be a better cheaper catalyst... more surface to interact react with. Sometimes it isn't the new material on its own but also how you apply it. I couldn't read the article you linked to because it is behind a pay w
  • Until then it's just so much hot...um...hydrogen gas.
  • by AaronW (33736) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @03:17AM (#43316997) Homepage

    I think hydrogen fuel cells are a dead-end technology. Batteries are steadily improving and by the time they're able to solve the fuel cell issues there won't be demand. By then batteries or possibly graphene supercapacitors will have taken over, with much higher efficiency. Lithium batteries are very efficient at storing energy and it's a lot simpler to just use a battery, an inverter and an electric motor than a hydrogen storage system, fuel cell, inverter and electric motor.

    They're already able to give cars 150 miles worth of charge in 30 minutes and the batteries will last for many years before they need replacing.

    Even with a catylist, cracking water to make hydrogen then storing it will be nowhere near as efficient. The energy density of hydrogen is also fairly low. I believe the future belongs to batteries and all-electric vehicles. I realized this after having acquired an EV of my own, a Tesla model S.

    EVs are a different mindset. Each night when I come home I spend about 10 seconds plugging in. In the morning it takes 10 seconds to unplug and I basically have a full tank. Even the current wait at a supercharger is not necessarily time wasted unlike when filling a gasoline car. There is no reason for me to stand next to the car waiting for it to fill up. I can just as easily walk over to a restaraunt and have a nice meal for the price of filling up a tank, or I could surf the web, read E-mail, whatever.

    Right now the biggest limitation is there are not enough of these rapid charging stations, but that will change as the infrastructure improves. The other biggest limitation is the cost, but the cost of batteries is steadily declining while the capacity is steadily increasing. The cost of electric motors like what Tesla uses should not be that high, especially since their induction motors do not contain any rare-earth minerals.

    -Aaron

    • by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Saturday March 30, 2013 @09:17AM (#43317737)
      Batteries are also a dead end. I'm sure that is hard to hear since it is your pet technology and the one you have invested in, but there is little reason to change the entire automotive culture to fit EVs when there are green technologies closer aligned to the better performing fossil fuels.

      I'm sure there will be EVs for a while, but the fuel of the future will very likely be algae based ethanol. It has close to the energy density of gasoline (much better than batteries for decades to come) and doesn't require long charging times. It is also close to carbon neutral (and I think, given the feed potential, could be considered carbon negative). And it is efficient enough to be practically grown.
    • by khallow (566160)
      One can also react that hydrogen with other chemicals to create more conventional (and useful) chemicals such as methane, ethane (useful base compound for making gasoline), ethylene (common plastics building block), and ammonia (usual starting point for fertilizers).
    • by russotto (537200)

      I think hydrogen fuel cells are a dead-end technology.

      Probably. Hydrogen's a lousy fuel for a lot of purposes.

      They're already able to give cars 150 miles worth of charge in 30 minutes and the batteries will last for many years before they need replacing.

      Where many is "2". Long-lasting rechargeable batteries are like clean diesel, solar power or good fluorescent bulbs; there's always someone swearing that THIS iteration doesn't have the problems the previous iteration did. And they're always wrong.

      • by AaronW (33736)

        The Panasonic batteries used in my car will maintain 80% of their original capacity after 2000 full charge/discharge cycles. With my daily 15 mile (each way) commute I use about 11% of the battery capacity. 2000 / 0.11 = 18,181 days of usage, or about 49 years until I'm at 80% capacity. There is also some loss based on time, but I should be able to easily get over 10 years of use out of them. Now if I drove over 200 miles each day the batteries will last significantly less time, but the battery performance

  • and thinking to myself ... how can be AMD latest drivers be connected to hydrogen production ... my brain is just to preconditioned :)
  • This is great news for all you Hindenburg reenactors out there!

  • Once again, Slashdot promotes and links to a paywalled source.

  • Neither ruthenium nor iridium should be particularly toxic. Because of their rarity, very little is actually known about their toxicity. The metals are very inert, and most of the salts are insoluble in water. Their toxicity should be similar to platinum. Ruthenium currently trades for about US$100/troy oz, iridium trades for about US$1000/troy oz.

  • Linked articles are long on hype and short on data. The "green" angle is irrelevant, but this would be the perfect complement to the cold fusion reactor we'll all have in our basements.
    • by belthize (990217)

      What link did you click, here's the paper linked to:
      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/03/27/science.1233638.full [sciencemag.org]

      The last sentence in the paper:

      Given the broad applicability of this approach and the acute stoichiometric control of the metal compositions, we contend that the PMOD technique opens an entirely new parameter space for discovery and optimization of new heterogeneous electrocatalysts.

      is the "hype", which is preceded by several pages of data.

  • I lost a lot of fait in hydrogen when I had seen the car which runs on compressed air. The pressures used to compress the air for that car is less than the pressures needed to compress hydrogen is usually compressed.

    As I understand it hydrogen needs to be compressed because it is very voluminous and the containers would be to large to be useful otherwise.

    I believe hydrogen is also compressed more than with cars running on natural gas.

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