Australian breakthrough could be boost for hydrogen fuel cells

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A research team from Australia has developed a new way to use solar energy for producing hydrogen, potentially leading to lower costs.

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CleanTechnica

In yet another twist on the “artificial leaf” theme, a research team from Australia has developed a new way to use solar energy for producing hydrogen, potentially leading to lower costs. The news comes just in time to contribute to yet another lively discussion on CleanTechnica about the high cost of hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles.

The latest discussion was sparked by a Toyota official’s recent admission that the cost of hydrogen for FCEVs will start at about $50 per fill-up for its new FCEV sedan, covered here at CleanTechnica under the title Toyota: Hydrogen Fuel Will Be Costly (here’s an earlier one, btw). Of the 80 comments we received so far, a substantial number revolved around the energy needed for getting to the hydrogen in the first place. That’s a legit issue given the current state of technology, which relies heavily on hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels.

There are a number of promising up-and-comers in the alternative hydrogen sourcing field that could lead to lower costs, including the use of solar power to split hydrogen from water, so let’s see if this new take on solar will add to the discussion.

rsz_cost-of-hydrogen-with-solar-energy

Using Solar Power To Produce Hydrogen

We’ve previously covered the “artificial leaf” hydrogen production approach developed by Harvard (formerly MIT) professor Daniel Nocera. That one deploys solar energy in a photoelectrochemical process. The artificial leaf concept from the Australian team takes a different tack.

The researchers, from Australian National University Research School of Biology, approached the photosynthetic process from, you guessed it, the biological angle. The team focused on a ubiquitous, naturally-occurring protein called ferritin, which almost every living organism uses to store iron.

By replacing the iron with manganese, the team first tweaked ferritin to mimic the site in the photosynthetic process that splits water.

To complete the tailoring, the team also used the light-sensitive pigment zinc chlorin to replace a haem group that binds with ferritin (haem is British for heme — think hemoglobin and you’re on the right track).

Initial tests demonstrated that exposing the custom-made ferritin to light resulted in a charge transfer, mimicking the flow of electrons in photosynthesis.

If this is starting to ring some bells, why it seems like only yesterday (because it was) that we took note of a similar artificial leaf project using a strain of cyanobacteria found in a hot spring in Japan.

Like Dr. Nocera’s artificial leaf, the initial research is aimed at developing a low cost system that could be affordable in developing countries. The team also sees potential for scaling up. Here’s the vision:

Co-researcher Professor Ron Pace said the research opened up new possibilities for manufacturing hydrogen as a cheap and clean source of fuel.

“This is the first time we have replicated the primary capture of energy from sunlight,” Professor Pace said.

“It’s the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon.”

Professor Pace said large amounts of hydrogen fuel produced by artificial photosynthesis could transform the economy.

There you go again, right? The vision of a hydrogen economy just won’t die. We’re guessing that battery EVs have a head start that will put a heavy damper on the FCEV market for now (except for maybe in California), and the current high cost of hydrogen certainly doesn’t help any.

Then again, look what happened to battery EVs when automotive technology first took off in the late 19th century.

It looked like BEVs had the field to themselves when along comes this funny stuff called gasoline…

 

Source: CleanTechnica. Reproduced with permission.

 

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6 Comments
  1. Tony Pfitzner 5 years ago

    The last thing we need is hydrogen as a ubiquitous fuel. It is an indirect greenhouse gas that messes with methane and ozone levels in the atmosphere through it’s interaction with hydroxyl radicals. Imagine the leakage that could potentially occur in a third world scenario where it is distributed in poorly maintained systems and used as a fuel in crappily maintained vehicles.. Hydrogen is “leaky” by nature because of its low molecular weight.

    As a research exercise it is probably very interesting and may have other applications – certainly carbon fixation may be relevant to combating CO2 levels through sequestration – although trees seem to do this already.

  2. Miles Harding 5 years ago

    Here we go again…
    At least some admissions like it won’t be cheap and it won’t be efficient. The efficiency is really the problem above all others. Hydrogen misses in the efficiency argument by a wide margin, about 3:1 over an all-electric alternative. It is verrry difficult to see how any improvements could be good enough to make up this gap and bridge the fundamental physical limitations in the fool cell road map.

    We should all be reading hydrogen as a proxy for fossil fuels, one that will ensure that those unlucky motorists remain just as dependent for their fix as is currently the case.

    • Marty Carroll 5 years ago

      3:1 is really quite good considering that by the time electricity reaches your home (depending on how far you are from the power station) has lost something to the tune of 70% of it’s original power value. Every kilometer of power cable and each substation etc. saps power from the original. Your home ends up with a power efficiency of around 27%. Not very good I’m afraid. Electricity isn’t very efficient unless it’s used at the source.

      • Miles Harding 5 years ago

        I think that you’ve got the wrong end of the rake there, possibly confusing the heat and electric components 🙂

        The (coal fired) generator isn’t very efficient, somewhere between 35% and 47%, depending on the design. (Eurelectric; Efficiency in Electricity Generation; July 2003)

        The total transmission line losses to the consumer are estimated at between 8 and 15%, according the Schneider’s power transmission blog.

        • Phuc Dat Bich 4 years ago

          Do your maths mate. Coal fired generation at around 35% less 10% for transmission, distribution and transformer losses are about what Marty Carrol is saying. Its true: unless energy is generated efficiently and at source, it’s very wasteful.

  3. Dr Narsimha Kandadi 5 years ago

    There is no one silver bullet to fix the fossil fuel based energy systems with alternatives fuels/systems. Multiple sources of fuels, multiple fuels do have the role to fix this mess. Fuel cells in transportation system may not be desired currently but they can be used for stationary purposes as the efficiency of fuel cell system is not limited by the thermodynamics and they are more efficient systems. They do have role to play in alternative system of energy in very near future if they are economically viable. Alkaline fuel cells may have the future as they are commercially proven and not require expensive noble metals as their electrodes. The fuel cells and hydrogen for transportation require to cross many hurdles both technical as well as non technical.

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