There is another entry in the cheap hydrogen storage race. Two scientists at the University of Calgary believe they have discovered a way to use inexpensive, safe catalysts to produce hydrogen from water through electrolysis. They believe their catalysts will be 1,000 times cheaper than what is used today. They have started a new company, FireWater Fuel Corp., to commercialize the technology.
The key to their approach is using unstructured materials (unorganized and randomly distributed as opposed to organized crystalline structures). The unstructured materials allow more gaps and thus increase the catalytic action. The two scientists have discovered a fairly efficient way to create the unstructured materials that they believe can be done on an industrial scale. (More details below.)
I hope they are right. Their goal is “… to have a commercial product in the current large-scale electrolyzer market in 2014, and a prototype electrolyzer – using their new catalysts – ready by 2015 for testing in a home.” The idea is that people could use excess solar electricity to make hydrogen during the day, and then use a fuel cell to create electricity from the hydrogen when the solar panels are not producing electricity.
They may want to leverage the experience of a similarly targeted company, Sun Catalytix. In 2009 Sun Catalytix had similar, admirable, lofty goals to use its catalysts to create a hydrogen storage energy source. (See Sun Catalytix Receives Seed Financing from Polaris Venture Partners.) A recent article talked about time to market:
The vision of using a low-cost, solar-powered electrolyzer brought heaps of publicity to the company and Nocera, who advocated using the technology in developing countries. At the time, many venture capitalist companies were willing to invest in companies formed to commercialize lab research. But as the experience at Sun Catalytix shows, development times in material science are typically many years and require a substantial amount of capital to bring to market.
Decelle joined the company in June of 2011 and by the fall, it was clear the company had to pursue a shorter-term commercial market. “That (artificial leaf) technology tends to rely on hydrogen infrastructure. But when you think about that in venture capital time scales, it’s a tough pitch,” he says.
I cannot help but see eerie parallels between the two groups of scientists. Simon Trudel, one of the University of Calgary scientists, said “Our vision is to have these in your home so you can be completely off grid eventually.” (Globe and Mail video.) Sun Catalytix founder Daniel Nocera said much the same thing in 2009. I wish Sun Catalytix and Firewater Fuel much success.
What have the two University of Calgary researchers discovered?
Curtis Berlinguette and Simon Trudel, both assistant professors in the chemistry department in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary, have discovered a ground-breaking way to make new affordable and highly efficient catalysts (called electrocatalysts) for converting electricity into chemical energy. A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction.
What makes the electrocatalysts created by the University of Calgary researchers different than conventionally made, commercial catalytic materials?
Chemists have traditionally been attracted to creating catalysts out of ‘pure’ crystalline-structured materials. They’ve tended to ignore unstructured material as the “crud at the bottom of the flask.”
“There really have been few significant advances in catalyst design over the last three decades,” Berlinguette says.
He and Trudel developed a novel process that uses cheap, abundant and non-toxic metals (e.g. iron, cobalt, nickel) combined in a highly disordered, or amorphous, structure.
Think of crystalline structures as being like tiles laid in an ordered pattern on a floor, while amorphous structures are like tiles thrown on a floor. Such an amorphous material has no symmetry and is full of ‘defects.’
These ‘defects’ in amorphous mixed metal oxide materials actually make them more chemically reactive – and therefore more efficient catalysts – than crystalline materials.
Laboratory tests by the University of Calgary researchers show their catalysts perform as well as or better than catalysts now on the market – but theirs are 1,000 times cheaper.
“We’re essentially showing, even with our ‘first generation’ of catalysts, that we’re equal to or better than anything that’s sold commercially right now after 30 years of development,” Trudel says.