February 7, 2005
A research group at Arizona State University is exploring more efficient ways of producing hydrogen from water, which could bring closer the day that Americans run vehicles on nonpolluting hydrogen instead of gasoline.
The Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology, a group within the Biodesign Institute at ASU, has received a $1.5 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energ y to conduct the research as part of President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
Hydrogen has been viewed by many experts as a good energy source for the future because it is clean and abundantly available in water, which is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. But there are major barriers to hydrogen’s adoption as an energy source, including the lack of a supply infrastructure and the cost of splitting water to produce it.
The latter problem is being addressed by the ASU researchers, who are led by Neal Woodbury, director of the center.
Their goal is to find catalysts — materials that facilitate chemical conversions —that will promote the efficient generation of hydrogen from water, he said.
The group is looking to natural processes for clues to do it more efficiently. Specifically, the team will look at naturally occurring manganese-based catalysts that facilitate the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen, he said.
"There is a cluster of manganese atoms involved in the process that basically interacts with water," he said. "We are learning more and more about that process and how nature does it. The question becomes, how do we translate that into something practical."
Current processes that split water into hydrogen and oxygen use more energy than is chemically required, Woodbury said. About 2.2 volts of electricity are needed to create hydrogen in existing commercial systems, but the research team hopes to reduce that to 1.3 or 1.2 volts, creating an energy savings of about 40 percent.
"Eventually we expect to find a catalyst that . . . comes very close to replicating the process in nature," he said. "We then plan to put that catalyst material right on an electrode, which is commonly used in water-splitting processes, to make the overall process more efficient."
The electricity needed to power the conversion process could be produced from renewable sources such as solar or wind energy, making the process completely clean and independent of fossil fuels, he said.
Woodbury guesses that hydrogen will be only a part of the nation’s future energy picture, joining with biomass and other technologies to create self-sustaining and clean energy sources.
"We will have to pay a price to get there, but you have to compare that with the cost of not doing it," he said.
"We don’t want to get to the point where we have formerly fertile areas that can no longer produce food or rising water levels (due to global warming caused by burning fossil fuels). We don’t want to go there."
Woodbury’s team includes Jim Allen and Jo Ann Williams of ASU’s chemistry and biochemistry department, and Trevor Thornton, director of the Center for Solid State Electronics Research. Graduate students also will be involved in the project.