New Products Emulate Nature To Break Efficiency Records

Pollution-free cars on the way as TCD scientists make breakthrough

CRANN, the Nanoscience Institute believe their new approach to producing Hydrogen fuel could help to revolutionise transport.

A team at Trinity College Dublin have found a new way of producing an emissions-free fuel that’s 90 per cent cheaper than existing methods.

Researchers at the CRANN, the Nanoscience Institute at the university, believe their new approach to producing Hydrogen, could help to herald a new era in transport.

The discover could help the development of a real alternative to fossil fuels, perhaps the greatest technological challenge faced by humanity.

Hydrogen-fueled vehicles have been around for many years, but CRANN have developed a material which enhances the splitting of water at a very low energy cost using earth abundant raw materials.

This new material performs as well as the world’s most effective material for water splitting (which is the scarce and expensive ruthenium oxide) but is much less expensive.

Professor Mike Lyons says reducing the cost is a real breakthrough.

“Hydrogen can be generated at the forecourt, it can be pumped just like petrol, and filled you can go for perhaps 4-500 miles. So it really is a credible alternative to petrol.”

This is a significant breakthrough, as it means that an energy efficient production of pure hydrogen is now possible using renewable energy sources which will potentially accelerate adoption of hydrogen as a fuel in energy efficient transportation.

Hydrogen has been described as the ultimate clean energy source, as it is does not cause pollution, and would satisfy much of the energy requirements of our society.

But the widespread uptake of hydrogen as a fuel has been hampered by the lack of low cost, earth abundant materials which split the water, in an economically efficient manner.

The CRANN breakthrough has been published in the prestigious international journal ACS Catalysis, and shows that the ruthenium content can be reduced by as much as 90% and substituted with manganese oxide, an abundant resource.

“We are very excited about this very significant breakthrough,” Prof Lyons added.

“The adoption of this material in industry will mean that electrochemical hydrogen generation using photo (electrolysis) is now far more economically viable and will hasten adoption of hydrogen as a fuel in energy efficient transportation.

“It should be noted that this discovery could only have been accomplished using the world class characterization facilities and opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration available within the School of Chemistry and CRANN.”

“Our disruptive materials breakthrough is momentous as it means much more energetically efficient and more economical hydrogen energy. This means that the cost of producing hydrogen via water electrolysis will be significantly reduced, which will result in a more rapid uptake of hydrogen as an automotive fuel.”

San Francisco to be Focus of Fuel Cell Vehicles Using Hydrogen

Everyone loves San Francisco, including the US Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office. The city wants to cut its greenhouse gases by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017 and 40 percent by 2025. How?

It’s doing a lot of things but it will now be ramping up the deployment of fuel cell electric vehicles and a hydrogen infrastructure — funded by the Energy Department and the city as well. To that end, San Francisco will try to triple its zero emissions vehicles by 2025. That would equal to 15 percent of the cars on the road there, including fuel cell vehicles.

How doable is using hydrogen in fuel cells to run cars, buses and trucks? Right now, hybrids are the in-thing among “green motorists.” All-electric is coming up. But fuel cell-powered vehicles are still around the bend. Still Daimler, Hyundai and Toyota are working on such projects, with Toyota saying that it wants thousands of those vehicles on the road in 2020.

“People understand the appeal,” says Susan Hock, who had been the director of electric and hydrogen technology systems for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in a previous conversation with this reporter at her Golden, Co. office.

Hydrogen is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. While it is one of the most plentiful elements in the earth’s surface, it is found mostly in water. To be useful in energy applications such as fuel cells, however, a pure hydrogen source is required. If the hydrogen economy is to become a reality, then cheaper and more efficient methods of stripping the hydrogen from water must be developed. Today’s technologies are costly and tend to consume large amounts of energy.

Right now, filling vehicles with the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline takes about 14,500 gallons of uncompressed hydrogen, says Sandia National Laboratories. But the National Energy Renewable Laboratory says that hydrogen has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline, which more than compensates for the efficiency losses.

It is also difficult to store hydrogen — something the U.S. Department of Energy has said is the top priority when it comes to commercializing fuel-cell vehicles. Beyond storage is the need to develop a pipeline infrastructure that can deliver the product. Pipelines that move hydrogen are said to be 30 percent more expensive than those that carry natural gas.  

“We could wean ourselves from fossil fuels and become more energy independent to power cars and homes — and the only emission would be distilled water. But you have to produce, distribute and store hydrogen,” says Hock.

 She goes on to say that hybrid vehicles will serve as a bridge to the hydrogen economy. Hybrids will decrease oil consumption, she notes. But, because the demand for oil is expected to increase, any long-term solution must rely more on petroleum substitutes. Companies are working toward this. 

And so is the US government, which is funding projects to the tune of at least $35 million in multiple states to support fuel cell vehicles. FedEx Express, for example, received $3 million to build a hydrogen fuel cell delivery truck with a range of 240 kilometers on a full tank.

The know-how to create a new hydrogen-powered auto sector now exists. But the cost remains prohibitive, along with some technological hurdles. That’s why the San Francisco experiment will be worth watching.


Bionic leaf turns sunlight into liquid fuel

New system surpasses efficiency of photosynthesis

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The days of drilling into the ground in the search for fuel may be numbered, because if Daniel Nocera has his way, it’ll just be a matter of looking for sunny skies.

Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, and Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, have co-created a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels.

The paper, whose lead authors include postdoctoral fellow Chong Liu and graduate student Brendan Colón, is described in a June 3 paper published in Science.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera said. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”

While the study shows the system can be used to generate usable fuels, its potential doesn’t end there, said Silver, who is also a founding core member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Bionic Leaf Turns Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel

A cross-disciplinary team at Harvard University has created a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. The system can convert solar energy to biomass with 10 percent efficiency, far above the one percent seen in the fastest-growing plants.

“The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist — biology can do chemistry we can’t do easily,” she said. “In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.”

Dubbed “bionic leaf 2.0,” the new system builds on previous work by Nocera, Silver, and others, which — though it was capable of using solar energy to make isopropanol — faced a number of challenges. Chief among those, Nocera said, was the fact that the catalyst used to produce hydrogen — a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy — also created reactive oxygen species, molecules that attacked and destroyed the bacteria’s DNA. To avoid that, researchers were forced to run the system at abnormally high voltages, resulting in reduced efficiency.

“For this paper, we designed a new cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst, which we showed does not make reactive oxygen species,” Nocera said. “That allowed us to lower the voltage, and that led to a dramatic increase in efficiency.”

The system can now convert solar energy to biomass with 10 percent efficiency, Nocera said, far above the 1 percent seen in the fastest-growing plants.

A leap for ‘artificial leaf’

In addition to increasing the efficiency, Nocera and colleagues were able to expand the portfolio of the system to include isobutanol and isopentanol. Researchers also used the system to create PHB, a bio-plastic precursor, a process first demonstrated by Professor Anthony Sinskey of MIT.

The new catalyst also came with another advantage — its chemical design allows it to “self-heal,” meaning it wouldn’t leach material into solution.

“This is the genius of Dan,” Silver said. “These catalysts are totally biologically compatible.”

Though there may yet be room for additional increases in efficiency, Nocera said the system is already effective enough to consider possible commercial applications, but within a different model for technology translation.

“It’s an important discovery — it says we can do better than photosynthesis,” Nocera said. “But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well.”

Working in conjunction with the First 100 Watts program at Harvard, which helped fund the research, Nocera hopes to continue developing the technology and its applications in nations like India with the help of their scientists.

In many ways, Nocera said, the new system marks the fulfillment of the promise of his “artificial leaf,” which used solar power to split water and make hydrogen fuel.

“If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing,” he said. “It takes sunlight, water, and air — and then look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.”

This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. 

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