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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Energy Dept. Touts New 'Solar Fuel' Catalysts for the Hydrogen Economy

By Tina Casey

Don't start running over to the Molecular Foundry all at once, but if you're in the market for a good way to turn water into solar fuel, they have something for you. The Molecular Foundry is part of an Energy Department research team that has come up with 12 new materials that can harness the power of sunlight to produce renewable hydrogen from water.

Hydrogen economy, here we come

The new research is yet another demonstration that the dream of a hydrogen economy is finally bidding farewell to the land of Morpheus and planting its feet firmly in the real world.

That dream languished for many decades and it reappeared all but a few years ago. That's partly due to the global warming factor. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel in terms of direct greenhouse gas contributions, but conventional hydrogen production relies heavily on natural gas. In other words, conventional hydrogen is a sustainability non-starter in today's world.

Deploying solar energy to "split" water pushes that obstacle aside.

Along with Japan, German and Europe, the U.S. has accelerated its hydrogen activities. With a heavy dose of renewable energy, the aim is "deep decarbonization."

In the waning months of the Barack Obama administration, the Energy Department committed a new round of $30 million in support of foundational research.

Last fall the Energy Department also ramped up its water-splitting initiatives by linking six national laboratories in an initiative called HydroGEN.

Just one day before incoming President Donald Trump was honored with a modestly sized but enthusiastic crowd at his inauguration ceremony, the Energy Department also awarded a $1 million prize to the developers of a compact hydrogen fuel station called SimpleFuel.

12 more catalysts for solar-powered hydrogen production

While the Energy Department awaits word on steep budget cuts under the Trump administration, renewable hydrogen research that's already in the pipeline continues to bubble out.

The latest development illustrates the degree of collaboration involved in pushing the hydrogen economy into sustainable territory.

The new hydrogen research comes under the header of the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with the the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (spearheaded by the California Institute of Technology), with an assist from the colorfully named Molecular Foundry and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

The research team tackled a renewable hydrogen bottleneck involving the catalyst that is needed to split water.

There are only 16 known "photoanode" materials that can jumpstart the chemical reaction that produces hydrogen from water.

According to Berkeley Lab, researchers spent 40 years developing that stable of 16.

In just two years, the Berkeley team almost doubled that number with the addition of 12 new photoanodes.

Their work is described in the paper, Solar fuels photoanode materials discovery by integrating high-throughput theory and experiment," published in the online journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team essentially revved up the "cumbersome" trial-and-error process of previous generations to high speed, by adding a heavy dose of data mining (that's where the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center came in):

"The scientists combined computational and experimental approaches by first mining a materials database for potentially useful compounds, and then rapidly test the most promising candidates using high-throughput experimentation."

The search was narrowed down to group of 174 metal compounds called vanadates, which contain vanadium, oxygen and another element. That third element is the key to identifying the new photoanodes:
"The research reveals how different choices for this third element can produce materials with different properties, and reveals how to 'tune' those properties to make a better photoanode."

The addition of the 12 new photoanodes helps to widen the sustainable hydrogen supply chain, enhancing opportunities for cost efficiency.

Meanwhile, the business sector is not waiting around for the research to make its way out of the lab and into commercial development.

Toyota is among the companies already developing solar-powered hydrogen production for fuel cell electric vehicles, and here in the U.S. the startup Nikola is working with Ryder on a network of solar fueling stations for fuel cell trucks.

Image (cropped); Photoanode materials by CalTech via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey