New Development Aids Progress of Hydrogen Cars

It’s a welcome development in a world of many cities too filled with toxic smog.

UCLA researchers have designed a device that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

The device could make hydrogen cars affordable for many more consumers because it produces hydrogen using nickel, iron and cobalt — elements that are much more abundant and less expensive than the platinum and other precious metals that are currently used to produce hydrogen fuel.

“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 Richard Kaner, the study’s senior author and a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering. “And this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars.”

The technology, described in a paper in the journal Energy Storage Materials, could be especially useful in rural areas, or to military units serving in remote locations.

“People need fuel to run their vehicles and electricity to run their devices,” Kaner said. “Now you can make both electricity and fuel with a single device.”

It could also be part of a solution for large cities that need ways to store surplus electricity from their electrical grids.

“If you could convert electricity to hydrogen, you could store it indefinitely,” said Kaner, who also is a member of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute.

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The device also is a step forward because it produces hydrogen fuel in an environmentally friendly way. Currently, about 95 percent of hydrogen production worldwide comes from converting fossil fuels such as natural gas into hydrogen — a process that releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, said Maher El-Kady, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher and a co-author of the research.

“Hydrogen energy is not ‘green’ unless it is produced from renewable sources,” El-Kady said. He added that using solar cells and abundantly available elements to split water into hydrogen and oxygen has enormous potential for reducing the cost of hydrogen production and that the approach could eventually replace the current method, which relies on fossil fuels.