Energy crisis: UK hydrogen breakthrough paves way for ‘cheap’ truly green power

Prince Charles drives futuristic hydrogen car in Wales

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Hydrogen fuels cells produce energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen via an electrochemical reaction that has water as its only by-product. Because of this, they are seen as an attractive alternative power source — especially for vehicles, with hydrogen-powered buses and trains already in operation in some places. However, their widespread uptake has been hampered by the fact that the fuel cells are typically dependent on catalysing the reaction with platinum, a metal that is as scarce as it is expensive.

In their study, physical chemist Professor Anthony Kucernak of Imperial College London and his colleagues have shown that an alternative catalyst can be made using only iron, carbon and nitrogen — all materials that are cheap and readily available — and that such can be used to operate a high-power fuel cell.

Prof. Kucernak said: “Currently, around 60 percent of the cost of a single fuel cell is the platinum for the catalyst.

“To make fuel cells a real viable alternative to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, for example, we need to bring that cost down.

“Our cheaper catalyst design should make this a reality, and allow deployment of significantly more renewable energy systems that use hydrogen as fuel,

This, he added, will ultimately help by “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and putting the world on a path to net-zero emissions”.

According to the researchers, the key to their new catalyst lies in dispersing the iron into an array of single atoms held within an electrically conductive carbon matrix.

Unlike bulk iron, where all the atoms are clustered together, single-atom iron has special properties that make it more reactive — and an ideal substitute for platinum in a fuel cell.

In lab tests, the team were able to demonstrate that their single-atom iron catalyst has a performance that nearly matches that of platinum-based catalysts when used in a real fuel cell system.

These tests were undertaken, they explained, in collaboration with UK fuel cell catalyst manufacturer Johnson Matthey.

Lead author and fellow Imperial physical chemist Dr Asad Mehmood said: “We have developed a new approach to make a range of ‘single atom’ catalysts.”

These, he added, “offer an opportunity to allow a range of new chemical and electrochemical processes.

“Specifically, we used a unique synthetic method, called transmetallation, to avoid forming iron clusters during synthesis.

“This process should be beneficial to other scientists looking to prepare a similar type of catalyst.”

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With their initial study complete, Prof Kucernak and his colleagues are now looking to scale up their catalyst so that it might be used in commercial fuel cells.

In addition, the team is also working to improve the single-atom iron catalyst’s stability such that it can compete with platinum catalysts in terms of durability as well as performance.

The researchers also said that the method that they used to produce their iron catalyst could be used to produce other catalysts for other processes — such as to remove harmful contaminants from wastewater.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Catalysis.

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