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Hydrogen Fuel Cells: DOE Finds Faster, Cheaper Catalyst

Recharges fuel cells in 90 seconds
2/3/2017 10:35 AM EST
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R_Colin_Johnson
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MiddleEast Exit Strategy
R_Colin_Johnson   2/3/2017 11:54:48 AM
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Who said fuel cells were dead? DoE says it has the technology to make them work without fossil fuel freeing us from the MiddleEast.

DMcCunney
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
DMcCunney   2/3/2017 6:21:27 PM
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@R_Colin_Johnson: DoE says it has the technology to make them work without fossil fuel freeing us from the MiddleEast.

The question is how much fossil fuel we actually get from the Middle East now.

I wouldn't call the US energy independent, but we are far less dependant than we used to be.  Resumption of domestic oil production, and increasing use of abundant natural gas in place of oil have dramatically reduced dependence on Middle East sources.  OPEC is largely in tatters because their power rested on control of a scarce resource with the ability to charge high prices in consequence, and as other sources of oil emerged, that control lessened.  OPEC states totally dependent on oil revenues, like Venezuela, are in trouble in consequence.  (Venezuela's government made no attempt to invest high revenues generated by oil in other things that would grow and strengthen their economy and leave them better positioned for the time when oil revenues dropped, and is paying the price now.)

I haven't Looked Stuff Up, and don't know how far the US might be from being able to drop mideast oil imports entirely, but I suspect it is closer than generally assumed.

>Dennis

Doug_S
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
Doug_S   2/4/2017 4:37:52 AM
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Even though the US is producing more oil than it uses, we're still dependent on the Middle East because oil is a world market. If Saudi Arabia had a revolution and shut down all their production, oil prices would shoot to $200/bbl which would affect US users just as much as those halfway around the world.

Natural gas on the other hand isn't a world market, because it is a lot more difficult to ship overseas, and the US isn't really set up for a whole lot of export. We've been independent on natural gas production for years, and with fracking produce more than we really know what to do with (it is simply burned off on some wells because they don't have the ability to pipe to somewhere that can use it) The idea that using natural gas reformation to hydrogen is bad because it "depends on fossil fuels" is silly. A better process is welcome, but only if it is cheaper.

If hydrogen was used as a vehicle fuel it could be reformed on site using solar input at the well, and used to fuel the trucks and other equipment on site instead of burning it off where there's no pipeline available, so it would be much better for the environment too.

DMcCunney
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
DMcCunney   2/4/2017 7:51:53 AM
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@Doug_S: Even though the US is producing more oil than it uses, we're still dependent on the Middle East because oil is a world market. If Saudi Arabia had a revolution and shut down all their production, oil prices would shoot to $200/bbl which would affect US users just as much as those halfway around the world.

A revolution in Saudi Arabia that would cut off their production isn't something I see as likely.  Remember that the House of Saud came to power in what was essentially a fundamentalist revolution against the previous rulers.  They remember how they got into power, and you can assume they are taking measures to see the same thing doesn't happen to them.  The challenge for the Saudi rulers is modernizig while not upsetting the fundmentalists who form the base of their support.

Oil is a world market, but I'm not sure I see the $200/bbl price if there was a serious crimp in mideast production.  What might cause that?  Political instability in the area is a problem, but with the Saudis as major producer with an interest in keeping things on an even keel, it's a fair bet they'd increase production if another mideast producer had issues.

Natural gas on the other hand isn't a world market, because it is a lot more difficult to ship overseas, and the US isn't really set up for a whole lot of export.

No, we aren't, but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed.  I've heard stories about Germany, for example, exploring buying natural gas from the US.  Europe in general is far more dependent on mideast oil than we are, as European nations mostly lack domestic supplies and must import it.  (And gas prices at the pump in Europe are often deliberately inflated by taxes to reduce consumption in consequence.)  I have no doubt there are folks thinking about how it might be done, and the question is what price point for exported natural gas would make it worth doing.

If hydrogen was used as a vehicle fuel it could be reformed on site using solar input at the well, and used to fuel the trucks and other equipment on site instead of burning it off where there's no pipeline available, so it would be much better for the environment too.

The challenge is actually using hydrogen as a vehicle fuel, but I concur on the advantages.

>Dennis

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
R_Colin_Johnson   2/4/2017 12:58:31 PM
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Yes, I think we all are thankful to the Saudi's to continue to pump even though prices have plummeted as a result. I think they realize that their vast reserves are better sold at $50-to-$75 a barrel rather than encourage the world to switch over to EVs. If the DoE project comes off as advertised, it won't replace oil, at least not right away, but it will make the EVs more affordable, thus encourage the switchover (probably driving oil prices even lower).

DMcCunney
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
DMcCunney   2/4/2017 1:34:24 PM
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@R_Colin_Johnson: Yes, I think we all are thankful to the Saudi's to continue to pump even though prices have plummeted as a result. I think they realize that their vast reserves are better sold at $50-to-$75 a barrel rather than encourage the world to switch over to EVs.

I'm not sure "thankful" is the appropriate descriptor.  What choice do they have?  OPEC no longer has a lock on production, and their choice is sell for what they can get or not sell.  Since oil is their major source of revenue, not selling would be self-defeating.

But lets be realistic about EV usage.  The last I looked, a US national energy budget broke down roughly into quarters:

Heavy Industrial heating and cooling

Light commercial heating and cooling

Transporation

Electricity

I don't have a feel for how much natural gas has displaced oil as what to burn to generate heat for heating and cooling, but I suspect, especially in the heavy industrial segment, that oil still predominates.

And EV usage is just beginning.  It's getting traction in automobiles, but I don't expect to see things like electric 18 wheelers any time soon, nor do I expect electric airiners. (I am seeing hybrid and natural gas powered busses in NYC.)

Natural gas has mostly replaced oil as the source of heat to boil water to make steam to spin turbines to drive generators in large commercial generating plants.  I believe a few places still maintain an oil fired capability as a backup, but natural gas supplies are reliable enough that they don't get used.  There's still some coal in that mix as well, but dropping.)

Ultimately, the form of energy that gets used will be the cheapest one that can do the job.  Various alternative energy sources have been around a long time, but got little or no pickup because they were simply too expensive, even when gas prices were $4/gal at the pump,  As oil prices drop, the bar gets raised in how affordable alternative energy sources must be to compete.

And a factor normally forgotten is that gas price at the pump has only an indirect relation to oil price at the well head. Price at the pump is far more determined by the futures market, and will significantly lag drops in price at the well head.

>Dennis

 

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
R_Colin_Johnson   2/4/2017 8:44:39 PM
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Good points all. I am thankful the Saudi's are not bucklying under to OPEC and cutting production, though perhaps you're right the world market is bigger than OPEC today.

DMcCunney
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
DMcCunney   2/5/2017 2:57:35 PM
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@R_Colin_Johnson: I am thankful the Saudi's are not bucklying under to OPEC and cutting production,

Saudi Arabia is the big pig at that particular trough, and it's more accurate to say OPEC buckles under to it.

though perhaps you're right the world market is bigger than OPEC today.

No perhaps about it.  It took a while, but OPEC basically pushed folks to find other sources for oil, and some have.  The resumption of domestic production in the US and shift to natural gas for things previously fired by oil are examples.

OPEC was a monoply relying on control of a scarce resource everyone needed.  As that scarcity diminished due to production outside of OPEC's control, their monopoly, power, and relevance eroded.

If your economy is dependent upon control of a scarce resource and you're smart, you take some of the the high revenues you generate and invest them into others things that can support your economy when the scarce resource is exhausted, or other sources outside your control are discovered.  If you aren't smart, you become someone like Venezuela, who is currently in massive trouble because they high oil revenues it depended on aren't there now.

>Dennis

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
R_Colin_Johnson   2/6/2017 10:03:55 AM
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Yes, OPEC is buckling under to it, I suppose, which is good for us with production still high.

TanjB
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
TanjB   2/6/2017 3:53:32 PM
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A favorite quote from Sheikh Yamani, about Saudi long term strategy

 

The stone age did not end for want of rocks.

jnissen
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Re: MiddleEast Exit Strategy
jnissen   2/6/2017 10:35:13 AM
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Dennis, I thought my profile picture was bad!

perl_geek
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Perpetual-Motion Machines
perl_geek   2/3/2017 2:21:28 PM
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The problem with hydrogen as a fuel, either in a combustion engine or a fuel cell, is its intractability if not chained to a more docile atom. A plausible way to generate it quickly and cheaply, by detaching it from its tranquiliser would certainly be a great help in making it a practical fuel. However, that does not make it a primary source of energy.

What is implied by the article's claims about freedom from reliance on the Middle East is dangerously close to headlines about "How to run your car on water". I'm surprised to see a scientist quoted in an engineering publication saying things like that: could it be an attempt to justify the existence of the DoE?

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
R_Colin_Johnson   2/3/2017 3:45:16 PM
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Yes, your car could be run on water--if you wanted to wait around long enough for electrolysis to produce enough hydrogen. This catalyst is supposed to make the process quick, but unfortunately requires too much electricity. Also oil doesn't just come from the Middle East, there are plenty of U.S. suppliers who will oppose the DoE making fuel cells recharging cheaper than buying gas. Probably end-up a military-only technology.

jnissen
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Expensive catalysts still required
jnissen   2/3/2017 4:30:23 PM
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Interesting work. Still relies upon a precious metal catalyst within the fuel cell itself. The "P" in a PEM fuel cell is platinum. Not a metal that is cheap! If you don't mind having a fortune in precious metal rolling down the street they work great. I read from time to time that nickle catalysts are being explored within the cell itself but long term contamination is still a problem for most. Thanks for the informative article.

Kevin Neilson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
Kevin Neilson   2/3/2017 5:29:45 PM
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I don't get it.  Where is the energy coming from?  Do you still have to do electrolysis, but it just works faster with this catalyst? 

GSKrasle
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
GSKrasle   2/4/2017 1:23:26 PM
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Yeah, the writer is apparently not terribly science-literate, an endemic problem whenever Hydrogen is the subject. 

What does "enabling an electric vehicle fuel cell to be recharged in 90 second using water mixed with a protic ionic liquid" even MEAN? 

Or this gem:

"The catalyst uses electrons and protons to make the hydrogen fuel very quickly," O'Hagan told us.

Yeah, take 1kg protons, plus 0.01234g electrons, mix well, bake for 1fs, and you'l have Hydrogen!

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
R_Colin_Johnson   2/4/2017 8:46:00 PM
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Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The peer-reviewed paper from this prestigious National Laboratory explains the chemical processes involved.

Kevin Neilson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
Kevin Neilson   2/6/2017 9:55:26 PM
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Thanks; I tried to read the abstract, but it was very abstruse.  I don't understand the basics here.  Isn't the H2 for the fuel cell pumped into the car?  If so, what does it matter to the driver how long it takes to make the H2?  I don't care how long it takes to distill a gallon of gas.  I only care how long it takes me to pump it into the tank. 

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
R_Colin_Johnson   2/7/2017 9:57:21 AM
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> what does it matter to the driver how long it takes to make the H2?

The faster, the cheaper the price at the pump, but the only way to do it quickly today is to use fossil fuels (natural gas).

The researchers point was that you no longer have to use natural gas to make hydrogen quickly. Electrolysis can make hydrogen from water, but is too slow to make it cheap at the pump. Their catalyst makes hydrogen fast. Next they aim to make it as efficient as natural gas, that is, fast and cheap.

Kevin Neilson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
Kevin Neilson   2/7/2017 3:46:50 PM
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You're implying there is not electrolysis involved when using this catalyst.  I still don't know where the energy is coming from if not from electricity.  A catalyst doesn't supply energy.

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
R_Colin_Johnson   2/7/2017 9:36:18 PM
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Yes it does use electricity, but instead of electrolysis, which is never mentioned in the article, a protic ionic liquid containing labile hydrogen is used with a nickel-based catalyst that spits off the hydrogen using electricity. It may sound like electrolysis, but is 1000 times faster, however uses more electricity than stripping hydrogen from natural gas. Their next step is to optimize the process to increase its efficiency so that it is better (or at least equal) to using fossil fuels (natural gas) in electricity consumption.

realjjj
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Re: Perpetual-Motion Machines
realjjj   2/4/2017 6:20:03 AM
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Wonder about desalinization (or waste water) and space applications. Cars will be fine with batteries while oil is done for anyway - has only short term relevance, 5 more years and it's at 10$ or less.

Guess i better explain since someone is bound to be outraged by such a claim.  After cost crossover, renewables do keep getting cheaper while on the consumption side, car as a service with autonomous vehicles greatly accelerates the transition to electric, in terms of miles. Car as a service with ICE is not feasible from a cost perspective and can't ever be since ICE is less energy efficient and gas is a highly processed fuel.

HankWalker
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Still Hydrogen Storage
HankWalker   2/6/2017 12:01:43 PM
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Aside from the fuel cell catalyst mentioned in another comment, there is still the problem of transferring fuel to the vehicle and storing it. To me the main benefit of this faster hydrogen generation process is that fuel could be generated at service stations or home. But there are several challenges. First, due to limited electrical power, hydrogen would need to be generated and stored prior to refueling. Second, it is challenging to store hydrogen in a vehicle, currently using a very high pressure tank (5000 psi for Honda).

Electrolysis is relatively inefficient, especially since the oxygen is discarded. Hydrogen storage is inefficient due to the need to compress it to high pressure. I am not that keen to find out what happens when the tank is punctured in an accident. Consider what happened to Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy when his natural gas powered SUV crashed (or was crashed) into a bridge abutment. He probably died from direct crash injuries (no seat belt), but the fire burned everything up.

R_Colin_Johnson
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Re: Still Hydrogen Storage
R_Colin_Johnson   2/6/2017 3:38:27 PM
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Yes, there are many chanllenges infrastructure-wise. BMW and others have demonstrated hydrogen fueled cars they claim are safe, but this report does not address any of those issues, but merely shows a fast way to produce hydrogen without relying on fossil fuels (natural gas is the easiest fuel to convert to hydrogen).

TanjB
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fast is not efficient
TanjB   2/6/2017 3:51:57 PM
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This is far from commercial because of the low efficiency.  As someone suggested, perhaps useful in a military context.  The key problem is efficency.  Heck, if you do not care about efficiency just burn the natural gas in a turbine.  There are high temperature fuel cells which can reform NG and generate electricity at around 60% efficiency, and there are also combined turbine generator / district heating setups in that range too.

Gas is going to be disruptive for a decade or two.  When the new Appalachian pipelines come on line it will complete the displacement of coal in the USA except for the open cast mines in the northern plains which consume locally and export electricity.

Natural gas vehicles have been around for decades.  But during the decade or two which natural gas dominates we probably will see a continued rise of renewable electric, both for vehicles and increasingly on the grid.  One of the values of gas is it is suitable for turbines and other generators which respond quickly.  So it is a good partner for renewable until utility scale non-carbon storage is solved.

Oil is kept under control, but the big casualty has been and will continue to be coal.

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