EL PASO, TX – Engineers at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) have proposed a low-cost nickel-based material to help split water more cheaply and efficiently to produce hydrogen.
Ramana Chintalapalle, professor of mechanical engineering at UTEP and director of the study, explained that it is a laboratory design inspired by nature.
“We have a plant with an extensive surface area that can absorb moisture and survive in extreme environments,” Chintalapalle said.
The university reported that the engineers were inspired by a desert succulent known as prickly pear cactus. The material is described in a new paper in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.
According to UTEP, electrolysis is the process of splitting water with electricity and an electrocatalyst, a material that accelerates any chemical reaction. Current techniques for splitting water rely heavily on platinum as a catalyst, which has its drawbacks.
“Platinum is the most widely used material for splitting water, but it is very expensive, more so than gold, and it is not feasible. We need a catalyst that is more economically viable so that all countries can reasonably adopt hydrogen,” she explains.
On the other hand, On the other hand, Navid Attarzadeh, a Ph.D. student in Environmental Science and Engineering, first noticed the prickly pear cactus while walking into the lab at UTEP’s Advanced Materials Research Center.
It is worth mentioning that the team had been studying nickel as a catalytic substitute for platinum, a metal that is abundant on Earth and a thousand times cheaper.
However, nickel is not as fast and efficient at breaking down water into hydrogen. That’s when the idea of designing a 3D nickel-based catalyst in the shape of a cactus came up; the larger surface area could accommodate more electrochemical reactions, creating more hydrogen than nickel usually produces.
The team quickly designed the structure at the nanometer scale – invisible to the human eye – and put it to the test. Chintalapalle, added that this is a fundamental discovery and the process needs further refinement, but it is a step in the right direction.
“Hydrogen gas can transform our country’s energy technology, without generating greenhouse gas emissions,” Chintalapalle said.
The research project was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program.