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Nanoelectrodes could cut hydrogen fuel cost

Posted: 16 Jul 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:nanoelectrode? nanoparticle-coated electrode? hydrogen fuel cell?

QuantumSphere Inc. claimed that its nanoparticle-coated electrodes could make hydrogen an economical alternative to natural gas and gasoline.

By increasing the surface area of conventional electrodes by more than 1,000x, 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 1.81kg 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. "Eventually, I envision a distributed hydrogen economy with different-sized electolyzers for different applicationsfrom 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 oilthat 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."

Cutting down the cost
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.

According to QuantumSphere, applications that could profit from retrofitted electrodes coated with its nanoparticles include making ammonia for fertilizer, making electrodes for batteries, and enhancing thermal reactions like those in the catalytic converters in a car's exhaust system.

"Whether it's electrolysis, fuel cells, batteries or catalytic converters, the more surface area you have, the higher the ability there is for those reactions to take place," said Rambach. "We can offer all these applications over a thousand percent increase in surface area simply by coating normal electrodes and membranes with our nanoparticles."

QuantumSphere's nanoparticle-coated electrodes can be used today to retrofit existing electrolyzers for higher efficiency, and the company plans to also offer retrofit nanoparticle-coated membranes for fuel cells and catalytic converters. In each device, the extra surface area can be used to boost the efficiency of the device, or to keep the efficiency constant while boosting the output. For example, QuantumSphere claims that at 85 percent efficiency, its nanoparticle-coated electrodes will increase hydrogen gas output in electrolysis systems by 300 percent.

"We are satisfying current market needs by supplying standard electrolysis plates coated with our nanoparticles that greatly improve their efficiency or outputyou can have the same efficiency but with greater volume output, or higher efficiency at the same output level," said Rambach.

Today, the company claims that hundreds of millions of kilograms of hydrogen are produced annually at an average cost of $3 to $5 per kilogram, but that costs can be drastically cut just by switching to its nanoparticle-coated electrodes.

Batteries are also being targeted by QuantumSphere, which has a deal with a major battery manufacturer to offer zinc-air batteries later this year that outperform alkaline disposables by boosting power by 320 percent.

"We are launching a military-grade zinc-air disposable battery with one of the world's largest battery manufacturers this fall, with a consumer battery version due in January of 2009," said Maloney.

QuantumSphere currently manufactures nanoparticles of iron, silver, copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese, for users who want to formulate their own coatings. Its precoated stainless steel electrodes are only available coated with nanoscale nickel-iron.

QuantumSphere also recently acquired Energetics Inc., which plans to incorporate nanoparticles into its proprietary membrane technology for Li-ion batteries.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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