By Mary Durlak
Release Date: June 27, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo researcher Gang Wu became interested in solving the problem of air pollution when he was a graduate student in the 1990s. On May 22, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded his lab $3 million to continue his work doing just that.
The award is part of Hydrogen Shot, a DOE initiative to tap hydrogen as an efficient, affordable fuel and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“This is a national consortium of scientists working together,” says Wu, PhD, professor of chemical and biological engineering. “Developing clean energy is the most important thing we can do for the future of human civilization.”
That promise of clean energy is what makes hydrogen as fuel so attractive. In motor vehicles, the hydrogen fuel cell emits water vapor through the tail pipe rather than the carbon dioxide released by gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.
Wu’s project will focus on a long-sought goal: to develop a catalyst for a hydrogen fuel cell that is efficient, cheap, and durable. Wu has been seeking this catalyst for more than 18 years; his ongoing efforts have been recorded in more than 300 papers appearing in scientific journals including Science, Nature Catalysis, and Nature Energy.
The quote attributed to Thomas Edison, talking about inventing the light bulb, comes to mind: “I have not failed 10,000 times…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
“The concept of a hydrogen fuel cell is simple. Developing the catalyst that meets the goal — efficient, cheap and durable — is the challenge,” says Wu, who also is directing a $600,000 subaward from General Motors on a different project with a similar focus. In that project, UB will explore innovative approaches to the design and synthesis of functional carbon materials with remarkable support effects, aiming to boost traditional platinum/cobalt catalysts.
A word about hydrogen
More than 10,000 cars powered by hydrogen are on the road in California, the only state other than Hawaii that has tried to provide fueling stations.
And the cars don’t blow up. Say “hydrogen” and many people think of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. Hydrogen is flammable, but, notes the DOE, “The safe use of any fuel focuses on preventing situations where the three combustion factors — ignition source (spark or heat), oxidant (air), and fuel — are present.”
Hydrogen-fueled cars create electricity that powers an electric engine; most of today’s electric cars depend on batteries that need to be recharged. Filling the tank on a hydrogen-fueled car is similar to the process at the corner gas station: a pump and nozzle system fills the tank in just a few minutes. Toyota states its hydrogen-powered Mirai has a range of 400 miles, more than the maximum range for many of today’s battery-powered electric vehicles. But it’s difficult to find a hydrogen fueling station, and the Mirai’s base-model price is about $50,000.
That high price is primarily due to the cost of the rare metal platinum, the element that has been most successful in making hydrogen fuel cells produce adequate, effective electrical power. Wu’s lab at UB is one of the world’s leaders in developing materials suitable for a catalyst that makes hydrogen fuel cells feasible at a large scale. He and colleagues recently developed a promising alloy in the lab by combining platinum and cobalt.
The DOE funding will build on that work by investigating a third element to form a “ternary catalyst” — a catalyst made up of three materials. The goal is a cheap catalyst that is durable for years as it converts hydrogen to electricity fast enough to provide the necessary power to motor vehicles — in particular, heavy-duty trucks, a significant contributor of air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.
“This project focuses on developing a hydrogen fuel cell for use in big trucks,” said Wu. That’s because much of the U.S. heavy truck traffic is carried on the national highway system. Developing the infrastructure for a hydrogen fueling system on those highways would be easier than providing one to support the more than 200 million personal vehicles in the U.S.
Developing an appropriate catalyst is just part of the challenge. “Different materials have different properties,” says Wu. That’s why the material that supports the catalyst is also critical. He plans to continue research into innovative, advanced carbon support materials. Results to date suggest that such materials have the capacity to finetune the catalyst’s properties while reducing the amount of platinum needed.
Wu also hopes that the third metal used in the catalyst may reduce the amount of cobalt needed; most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under conditions deplored by human rights organizations.
A collaborative effort
The DOE is providing $42 million to U.S.-based projects to “advance critical technologies for producing, storing, and deploying clean hydrogen.”
Wu notes that the research is being performed globally and collaboratively. One of the critical teams in the project is the Canadian firm Ballard Power Systems Inc., one of the largest companies worldwide to design and manufacture fuel cell systems.
Jian-Ping (Jim) Zhang, PhD, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at UB, and Hao Zeng, PhD, Moti Lal Rustgi Professor in the Department of Physics at UB, are collaborating on the project. Other collaborators are from Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.