Scientists have made a significant breakthrough in the quest for clean energy by developing a low-cost catalyst that can extract hydrogen from water. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, a team of researchers has created a process called electrolysis that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This new method, known as proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis, operates with separate catalysts for each electrode and offers higher efficiency at near room temperature.
While electrolysis has been around for over a century, the use of PEM electrolyzers represents a new generation of technology that can produce clean hydrogen using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. However, one major hurdle has been the high cost of the anode catalyst, which uses iridium—an expensive and scarce material priced at around $5,000 per ounce.
To address this challenge, the team developed a catalyst primarily composed of cobalt, a significantly cheaper alternative to iridium. By using their cobalt-based catalyst, the researchers aim to overcome the cost barrier and enable widespread adoption of PEM electrolyzers for the production of clean hydrogen.
Giner Inc., a company focused on commercializing electrolyzers and fuel cells, tested the new catalyst in its PEM electrolyzer test stations and found that it outperformed competitors’ catalysts in terms of performance and durability.
To further enhance the catalyst’s performance, the researchers used advanced techniques such as X-ray analyses at the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and electron microscopy at Sandia Labs and Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) to understand the catalyst’s atomic structure and its behavior during electrolyzer operation. Computational modeling at Berkeley Lab also provided valuable insights into the catalyst’s durability under reaction conditions.
This breakthrough aligns with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Energy Earthshot initiative, which aims to make green hydrogen production cost-effective at $1 per kilogram within the next decade. Achieving this goal could have a transformative impact on the economy, with applications in various sectors such as the electric grid, manufacturing, transportation, and residential and commercial heating.
The research findings, published in Science on May 11, demonstrate a promising path forward in replacing expensive catalysts made from precious metals with more abundant and affordable elements, according to Di-Jia Liu, senior chemist at Argonne.
Source: Argonne National Laboratory