Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have advanced the field of hydrogen power by creating a hybrid device that uses solar energy to produce hydrogen and electricity in a cost-effective manner. “People need fuel to run their vehicles and electricity to run their devices,” said Richard Kaner, lead author of the study and a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Now you can make both fuel and electricity with a single device.”
The new invention is a significant step forward in the quest to harness the power of hydrogen as a fuel source, particularly in transportation. “Hydrogen is a great fuel for vehicles: It is the cleanest fuel known, it’s cheap and it puts no pollutants into the air — just water,” said Kaner, “and this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars.”
In addition to positive and negative electrodes typically found in battery systems, the UCLA device includes an electrode with the ability to either store electrical energy or use it as a catalyst for water electrolysis, the process by which hydrogen and oxygen atoms are split from a water compound. To increase the device’s efficiency, the researcher team maximized the surface area upon which water makes contact. This additional surface area then allows greater production of hydrogen as well as increased energy storage.
Although commercial production of hydrogen has often proven to be costly and carbon intensive, the usage of ever-cheaper and clean solar power could change the game. The materials used in the UCLA device to create hydrogen, such as nickel, iron, and cobalt, are also significantly cheaper and more abundant than precious metals like platinum typically used in the process. Finally, the device, powered by the sun, is designed to be accessible even in isolated areas, thus increasing the viability of hydrogen as a fuel source for vehicles on long trips. Although the current model can be held in the palm of one’s hand, the principles behind the device may be applied at a greater scale.
Images via Reed Hutchinson/UCLA