Photoelectrochemical process replaces platinum catalyst in hydrogen generation

May 3, 2011
Menlo Park, CA--Researchers from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and DTU have engineered a cheap, abundant alternative to the expensive platinum catalyst used in hydrogen generation.

Menlo Park, CA--Theorist Jens Nørskov of the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University and a team of colleagues led by Ib Chorkendorff and Søren Dahl at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have engineered a cheap, abundant alternative to the expensive platinum catalyst used in hydrogen generation and coupled it with a light-absorbing electrode to make hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. The discovery is an important development in the worldwide effort to mimic the way plants make fuel from sunlight, a key step in creating a green energy economy.

Hydrogen is an energy dense and clean fuel, which upon combustion releases only water. Today, most hydrogen is produced from natural gas which results in large CO2-emissions. An alternative, clean method is to make hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. The process is called photo-electrochemical, or PEC, water splitting. When sun hits the PEC cell, the solar energy is absorbed and used for splitting water molecules into its components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Progress has so far been limited in part by a lack of cheap catalysts that can speed up the generation of hydrogen and oxygen. A vital part of the American-Danish effort was combining theory and advanced computation with synthesis and testing to accelerate the process of identifying new catalysts. This is a new development in a field that has historically relied on trial and error. "If we can find new ways of rationally designing catalysts, we can speed up the development of new catalytic materials enormously," Nørskov said.

The team first tackled the hydrogen half of the problem. The DTU researchers created a device to harvest the energy from part of the solar spectrum and used it to power the conversion of single hydrogen ions into hydrogen gas. However, the process requires a catalyst to facilitate the reaction. Platinum is already known as an efficient catalyst, but platinum is too rare and too expensive for widespread use. So the collaborators turned to nature for inspiration.

They investigated hydrogen producing enzymesnatural catalystsfrom certain organisms, using a theoretical approach Nørskov’s group has been developing to describe catalyst behavior. "We did the calculations," Nørskov explained, "and found out why these enzymes work as well as they do." These studies led them to related compounds, which eventually took them to molybdenum sulfide. "Molybdenum is an inexpensive solution" for catalyzing hydrogen production, Chorkendorff said.

The team also optimized parts of the device, introducing a "chemical solar cell" designed to capture as much solar energy as possible. The experimental researchers at DTU designed light absorbers that consist of silicon arranged in closely packed pillars, and dotted the pillars with tiny clusters of the molybdenum sulfide. When they exposed the pillars to light, hydrogen gas bubbled upas quickly as if they'd used costly platinum.

The hydrogen gas-generating device is only half of a full photo-electrochemical cell. The other half of the PEC would generate oxygen gas from the water; though hydrogen gas is the goal, without the simultaneous generation of oxygen, the whole PEC cell shuts down. Many groupsincluding Chorkendorff, Dahl and Nørskov and their colleaguesare working on finding catalysts and sunlight absorbers to do this well. “This is the most difficult half of the problem, and we are attacking this in the same way as we attacked the hydrogen side,” Dahl said.

SOURCE: SLAC; http://home.slac.stanford.edu/pressreleases/2011/20110502.htm

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About the Author

Gail Overton | Senior Editor (2004-2020)

Gail has more than 30 years of engineering, marketing, product management, and editorial experience in the photonics and optical communications industry. Before joining the staff at Laser Focus World in 2004, she held many product management and product marketing roles in the fiber-optics industry, most notably at Hughes (El Segundo, CA), GTE Labs (Waltham, MA), Corning (Corning, NY), Photon Kinetics (Beaverton, OR), and Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA). During her marketing career, Gail published articles in WDM Solutions and Sensors magazine and traveled internationally to conduct product and sales training. Gail received her BS degree in physics, with an emphasis in optics, from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA in May 1986.

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