A team from Rice University has uncovered an inexpensive, scalable way to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.
In research published this month in the journal Science, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, in partnership with Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst.
The new catalyst separates the liquid ammonia into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Traditional catalysts require heat for chemical transformations, but the new catalyst can spur reactions with just the use of sunlight or LED light.
Additionally, the team showed that copper-iron antenna-reactors could be used in these light-driven chemical reactions, known as plasmonic photocatalysis. In heat-based reactions, or thermocatalysis, platinum, and related precious (and expensive) metals like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium are required.
“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” Naomi Halas, a co-author of the report from Rice, said in a statement. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”
Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was joined on the project by Peter Nordlander, Rice’s Wiess Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Rice alumni and adjunct professor of chemistry Hossein Robatjazi. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and Environment, represented Princeton University.
“These results are a great motivator," Carter added. "They suggest it is likely that other combinations of abundant metals could be used as cost-effective catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.”
Houston-based Syzygy, which Halas and Nordlander founded in 2018, has licensed the technology used in the research and has begun scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. According to Rice, the test at Syzygy showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than in tests in the lab setup at Rice.
“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” Nordlander said in a statement.
Earlier this month, Syzygy closed its $76 million series C round to continue its technology development ahead of future deployment/
Houston is home to many other organizations and researchers leading the charge in growing the hydrogen economy.
Earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he's determined to position the city as hub for hydrogen innovation as one of the EPA's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Organizations in Texas, Southwest Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, known and HyVelocity Hub, also announced this month that it would be applying for the regional funding.
And according to a recent report from The Center for Houston's Future, the Bayou City is poised to "lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact."