Researchers find cheaper catalyst for hydrogen production

Researchers at Tufts University have discovered that it’s possible to make hydrogen from fossil fuels using less precious metal than current fuel processing technology has required.

Researchers at Tufts University in the US have discovered that it’s possible to make hydrogen from fossil fuels using far less platinum or gold than current fuel processing technology has required. Their research shows that 90 percent of precious metals used today may be removed from the catalyst without affecting its ability to produce hydrogen.

This finding could have potential cost savings of millions of dollars in the materials required to commercialise fuel cell technology.

A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Hydrogen fed to the anode passes through the electrolyte in the form of protons and combines with oxygen on the cathode making water and producing heat. Electricity is generated in the process. A fuel cell will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied. To produce fuel-cell quality hydrogen, an important step involves the removal of by-products such as carbon monoxide, which poison the fuel cell anode catalyst.

‘A lot of people have spent a lot of time studying the properties of gold and platinum nanoparticles that are used to catalyse the reaction of carbon monoxide with water to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide,’ said Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Tufts and the lead researcher of the project.

‘We find that for this reaction over a cerium oxide catalyst carrying the gold or platinum, metal nanoparticles are not important. Only a tiny amount of the precious metal in non-metallic form is needed to create the active catalyst. Our finding will help researchers find a cost-effective way to produce clean energy from fuel cells in the near future.’

She and her two colleagues, doctoral student Qi Fu and research professor Howard Saltsburg have filed a provisional patent for their research.

The Tufts research is based on the ‘water-gas shift’ reaction used to make hydrogen from water and carbon monoxide over cerium oxide loaded with gold or platinum. Typically, a loading of 1-10 weight percent of gold or other precious metals is used to make an effective catalyst. But the Tufts team discovered that, after stripping the gold with a cyanide solution, the catalyst was just as active with a slight amount of the gold remaining – one-tenth the normal amount used.

According to Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, ‘This finding is significant because it shows that metallic nanoparticles are mere ‘spectator species’ for some reactions, such as the water-gas shift. The phenomenon may be more general, since we show that it also holds for platinum and may also hold true for other metals and metal oxide supports, such as titanium and iron oxide.’

She added, ‘It opens the way for new catalyst designs so more hydrogen can be produced with less precious metal. This can pave the way for cost-effective clean energy production from fuel cells in the near future.’

Fuel cells are currently being used on a trial basis in some buses, cars and hotels, but they’re expensive. It may take up to 10 years until the technology is used in transportation and by the general population.

‘We’ve raised the issue of now having to look back and see if less precious metal may be used in other similar applications,’ said Saltsburg. There’s much more to be done, and that’s what makes the research exciting.’

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