LAKE WALES, Fl. — Today most fuel cells are recharged by stripping hydrogen from natural gas, a method that is efficient but requires fossil fuels. Fuel cells can also be recharged from electrolysis — splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen — but at a impossibly slow rate causing most applications to use natural gas.
Now, however, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has speeded up the hydrogen production process 1,000-times, enabling an electric vehicle fuel cell to be recharged in 90 second using water mixed with a protic ionic liquid that works similarly to the organic proteins in enzymes. The key to their discovery is a cheap nickel-based catalyst which performs the process speedup.
"The nickel catalyst is a molecular complex that is dissolved in the viscous liquid which is a protic ionic liquid," said PNNL's lead researcher on the project, chemist Molly O'Hagan, in an interview with EE Times. "Nickel is an abundant metal compared to platinum which is typically used as a catalyst for this transformation."
The Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's master plan to eliminate the need for fossil fuels in the near future. (Source: PNNL)
The bad news is that it takes more energy input to produce the hydrogen fuel, when using nickel over platinum, however the good news is that the process can virtually synthesize hydrogen from cheap liquids in a fraction of the time previously required using the nickel catalyst.
"The catalyst uses electrons and protons to make the hydrogen fuel very quickly," O'Hagan told us.
Do not look for electric vehicles (EV) to start sporting 90 second recharge fuel cells just yet, however. O'Hagan does not even have a working prototype for EV makers. However, her team is working day and night to reduce the amount of energy required to power the catalyst induces the 90 second refuel goal, and sees no fundamental engineering impediments to prevent eventual success.
"Our fundamental research is focused on understanding how to reduce the energy input without losing the fast rates. We have found that controlling proton delivery is critical to fast rates without loss in energy efficiency. This fundamental understanding will then provide the tools to develop fast and efficient catalysts in the future," O'Hagan concluded.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory chemist Molly O'Hagan explores different catalysts inspired by nature, looking for one that runs fast and efficiently to convert water to hydrogen fuel.
The hydrogen production rate today is 45 million molecules per second.