Rice lab’s catalyst could be key for hydrogen economy

Rice University

Rice University researchers have engineered a key light-activated nanomaterial for the hydrogen economy. Using only inexpensive raw materials, a team from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment created a scalable catalyst that needs only the power of light to convert ammonia into clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The research is published online today in the journal Science.

The research follows government and industry investment to create infrastructure and markets for carbon-free liquid ammonia fuel that will not contribute to greenhouse warming. Liquid ammonia is easy to transport and packs a lot of energy, with one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms per molecule. The new catalyst breaks those molecules into hydrogen gas, a clean-burning fuel, and nitrogen gas, the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere. And unlike traditional catalysts, it doesn’t require heat. Instead, it harvests energy from light, either sunlight or energy-stingy LEDs.

A reaction cell tests copper-iron plasmonic photocatalysts for hydrogen production from ammonia. Photo by Brandon Martin
A reaction cell tests copper-iron plasmonic photocatalysts for hydrogen production from ammonia. Photo by Brandon Martin

The pace of chemical reactions typically increases with temperature, and chemical producers have capitalized on this for more than a century by applying heat on an industrial scale. The burning of fossil fuels to raise the temperature of large reaction vessels by hundreds or thousands of degrees results in an enormous carbon footprint. Chemical producers also spend billions of dollars each year on thermocatalysts – materials that don’t react but further speed reactions under intense heating.

“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” said study co-author Naomi Halas of Rice. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”

“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” said Peter Nordlander, also a Rice co-author.

The best thermocatalysts are made from platinum and

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