QuantumSphere Inc. will report Tuesday (July 15) at Semicon West in San Francisco that its nanoparticle-coated electrodes can make hydrogen an economical alternative to natural gas and gasoline.
By increasing the surface area of conventional electrodes by more than 1,000 times, the company claims that electrolysis could soon be the least-expensive way to produce hydrogen for industrial and consumer applications. In addition, electrolysis creates no greenhouse gases, whereas making a pound of hydrogen from natural gas produces 4 pounds of greenhouse gases.
"Electrodes coated with our Nano NiFe [nickel-iron] catalyst take the clean-energy economy another step forward," said Kevin Maloney, president and CEO of QuantumSphere (Santa Ana, Calif.). "Eventually, I envision a distributed hydrogen economy with different-sized electolyzers for different applications--from small home units to refuel your car, to medium-sized generators for manufacturing, to giant, industrial-sized units that replace today's steam-reformation units."
The biggest producers of hydrogen today are oil refineries, which use steam reformation to strip hydrogen atoms from natural gas molecules (CH4) and use them to upgrade oil--that is, add hydrogen atoms to today's thicker oil, making thinner, lightweight oil. Refineries require lightweight oil because they were designed years ago when the top layers of oil fields were being pumped. Today, crude oil is thicker because it is pumped from the bottom of the well, and therefore needs to be thinned by adding hydrogen.
Historically, upgrading oil by adding hydrogen using electrolysis has been more expensive than steam reformation using natural gas. QuantumSphere's nanoparticle-coated electrodes aim to make the electricity powering electrolysis less expensive than the natural gas powering reformers.
"Oil today is much heavier than it used to be, and it gets a little heavier every day as resources get used up," said Glenn Rambach, a researcher at QuantumSphere. "Historically, using natural gas in reformers has been cheaper than electricity for electrolysis. But with our nanoparticle electrodes, we believe that getting hydrogen from water with electrolysis can be less expensive than stripping it from natural gas."
Eventually, QuantumSphere wants consumers to be able to recharge fuel cells for their car in the garage. The company also claims to be able to lower the cost of the fuel cells themselves by using nanoparticle-coated steel electrodes in place of today's expensive platinum electrodes. However, until fuel-cell-powered cars are available, the company plans to concentrate on near-term applications that retrofit existing applications with nanoparticle-coated electrodes.