Hydrogen gas is seen by some as the holy grail of alternative fuels. It is clean, it is green, and it is plentiful. However it is also expensive to make thanks to the need for platinum and other rare earth elements required to make the hydrogen catalyst. Thankfully, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a new electrocatalyst that addresses the high cost problems by generating hydrogen gas from water cleanly and with a much more affordable material – a form of nickel-molybdenum-nitride, basically nickel.
Hydrogen can be oxidized into a fuel cell to generate electricity, for example to power cars, without releasing carbon dioxide (CO2), and it can be produced in remote places without an electric infrastructure. The potential for hydrogen is as a viable alternative fuel is very high.
In order to get hydrogen gas, you have to break up a water molecule. The process is done through the electrolysis of water, splitting water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). This requires external electricity and an efficient catalyst to break the chemical bonds and shift around protons and electrons. The best catalyst to use is platinum, and if you have looked at high end jewelry recently you know platinum is expensive — around $50,000 per kilogram. Also, there is a limited global supply for platinum, which brings into question the suitability of hydrogen gas as an alternative fuel.
Scientists from DOE had to figure out a way to lower costs and use a more sustainable catalyst in the process of making hydrogen gas. Nickel-molybdenum-nitride is their solution; $20 per kilogram for nickel and $32 per kilogram for molybdenum – about 1000 times less-expensive than platinum. The new nickel based catalyst performs nearly as well as platinum
While the new DOE created catalyst does not represent a total solution to the challenge of creating affordable hydrogen gas, it does offer a major reduction in the cost of essential equipment. Wide spread use of hydrogen gas is indeed a ways off, however through government funded research such as that taking place at Brookhaven National Laboratory the future does seem a bit brighter for hydrogen gas.