Hydrogen-producing catalysts could replace lithium batteries

Catalysts that make hydrogen from formic acid could eventually replace lithium batteries and power a host of mobile devices.

Edman Tsang at Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry and his colleagues are developing such catalysts, which can produce hydrogen at room temperature without the need for solvents or additives.

Their approach involves placing a single atomic layer of palladium atoms onto silver nanoparticles. ‘The structural and electronic effects from the underlying silver greatly enhance the catalytic properties of palladium, giving impressive activity for the conversion of formic acid to hydrogen and carbon dioxide at room temperature,’ Edman said.

Edman said that the storage and handling of organic liquids, such as formic acid, is much easier and safer than storing hydrogen. Hence the catalysts would enable the production of hydrogen from liquid fuel stored in a disposable or recycled cartridge, creating miniature fuel cells to power everything from mobile phones to laptops.

Another advantage of the new technology is that the gas stream generated from the reaction is mainly composed of hydrogen and carbon dioxide but virtually free from catalyst-poisoning carbon monoxide, removing the need for clean-up processes and extending the life of the fuel cells.

The chemists have worked closely with George Smith, Paul Bagot and co-workers at Oxford University’s Department of Materials to characterise the catalysts using atom-probe tomography. The underlying technology is the subject of a recent Isis Innovation patent application.

‘There are lots of hurdles before you can get a real device, but we are looking at the possibility of using this new technology to replace lithium-battery technology with an alternative that has a longer lifespan and less impact on the environment,’ explained Edman.