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The Future is Hydrogen-Powered

Oregon State University chemical engineering team look to enhance the process of hydrogen-fueled renewable energy

By Nino Paoli

Carbon dioxide emissions are at an all time high, leading humanity towards a climate disaster within this century.

In the wake of human-caused global temperature warming from fossil fuel emissions, Dr. Zhenxing Feng, an associate professor at Oregon State University, is working on an electrocatalyst in hopes to make renewable energy more cost-efficient and readily available for industry and public use.

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, fossil fuels make up roughly 80% of the world’s energy. The burning of fossil fuels – namely coal, oil, and natural gas – releases an exorbitant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes the atmosphere to capture more energy, in the form of heat, than what humans need to survive on Earth. In effect, the global temperature rises, sea ice and polar caps melt, and weather becomes more severe, and even deadly.

Feng, along with Dongqi Yang, a chemical engineering graduate student at OSU, are a part of the scientific community looking to harness renewable energy sources, which do not directly emit carbon dioxide, and make them efficient and cost-effective enough to compete with fossil fuels. In particular, Fend and Yang are working on a material – an electrocatalyst – that will speed up the process of electrolysis, which uses hydrogen to power fuel cells.

Feng says to think of a catalyst to a reaction as though you're a traveler looking to get to the other side of a mountain: you will expend a great amount of energy hiking over the slope, whereas a catalyst acts like a tunnel through the mountain, which will make it much easier to get to where you need to go.

In a research article with lead author Zhifei Yan, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that water electrolysis converts electrical energy into chemical energy by splitting apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. So, when the chemical energy is used as a fuel or converted back to electricity, the only waste that is produced is water.

Water electrolysis has already been commercially introduced and used for power at places such as a wind-hydrogen plant that installed wind turbines and electrolyzers – for water electrolysis – in 2004 by Norsk Hydro and Enercon. Though the process, which emits no carbon, allures scientists, the process is expensive and slow.

This is where OSU ECat comes in.

Feng and Yang are developing the OSU Ecat (electrocatalyst), which will speed up the process of electrolysis specifically in Proton Exchange Membrane electrolyzers.

“We have made the catalyst, but now we need to scale it up,” Yang said. “We also want to reduce the cost of producing the material, so it can be commercialized.”

Though Feng and Yang are still in the process of scaling up the ECat to make it competitive at the market level, they have seen great results in the lab.

“Our material [used in ECat] has shown greater efficiencies to current commercial catalysts, as well as being much cheaper than current materials on the market,” Feng said. “Now, I want to find a good way to manufacture them, and test them in larger electrolyzers, which will reflect company and industry scales.”

Although Feng and Yang are still in the developmental stages for the ECat, they have patented their electrocatalyst and are talking to material manufacturers and energy companies about the potential of their technology.

“There are definitely competitors [to OSU ECat]; if there are no competitors, there’s probably no market,” said Feng. “But when comparing our [electrocatalyst] to others, at the lab scale, ours is the most efficient and least costly.”

The ECat is specialized for PEM electrolyzers, which are a type of electrolyzer that achieve the Yang works in Feng's lab, running tests that last up to four hours.

highest efficiency of any electrolyzer. However,

materials in PEM electrolyzers are relatively expensive.

Renewable energy sources are generally more expensive than traditional fossil fuels, which makes these technologies less popular, and urges scientists like Fend and Yang help bring down the costs of these green energies.

Yang first became interested in hydrogen as a fuel source when he saw that Toyota had released the Toyota Mirai 2020, their first full-electric, hydrogen-fueled car.

“The inside looks like a Toyota Camry, so I thought: “why does this cost so much money?” Yang said.

A model car in Feng's lab that uses a tiny fuel cell powered only by water to move.

The Toyota Mirai costs over $55,000, whereas a Toyota Camry costs less than half of that. This is only one reason why the full electric cars might be overlooked, Jacob Wallin, a salesman at Toyota of Corvallis, said.

“If you want to drive to New York from here, you’re going to have to plan out every stop and rest and take breaks to charge [an electric car],” Wallin said.

Wallin also notes that for the Toyota Mirai, the sole model for Toyota that is fully electric and hydrogen-powered, only California has built an infrastructure of hydrogen fuel stations for electric cars around the state.

So, although there are technologies being developed to replace fossil fuels, they come with their own hindrances and challenges. But, Kayla Gacosta, a fourth-year chemical engineering undergraduate at OSU is confident that scientists are on the right track for solving humanity’s energy issue.

“I feel like we have a lot of resources, we know how to make more efficient energy, it’s just a matter of implementing it,” Gacosta said. “I’m not necessarily worried because once people are aware that it is a problem that we need to address, we will be quick to implement the renewable energy sources that we have.”

Feng and Yang are not only working to make the process of electrolysis more efficient in PEM electrolyzers, though, as they are also looking to use their electrocatalyst to help produce hydrogen to be used in sectors other than transportation.

Yang explains the importance of getting the cost of hydrogen production down in order to create a green, cost-efficient fuel source to do things such as keep your lights on.

Feng notes that hydrogen can be used to create useful chemicals such as ammonia, and can be used for other processes like producing plastics and refining metals.

Hydrogen production is usually done by deriving the gas from natural gas, but this emits carbon dioxide in the process.

“The current method to produce hydrogen is a carbon-intensive method, so it will be ultimately replaced due to the zero-emission global goals,” Feng said. “The method to produce hydrogen from an electrolyzed process is needed.”

Feng explains that the future of energy will include renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower, but that it all will be centered around hydrogen.

“Hydrogen is completely clean, you only produce water,” Feng said. “Hydrogen can be a fuel, but hydrogen can also be the chemical to produce other useful chemicals, and there are many other ways you can use hydrogen.”


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