Solar powers hydrogen vehicles

Friday 24th November 2017
Replica of the UCLA device, which produces both electricity and hydrogen (Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are emerging slowly on the roads. As Edinburgh knows with its large solar car park at its western fringes. But distributing and storing hydrogen is a real road block to mass production. Now new work at UCLA could be on the verge of helping lower barriers to entry for consumers, with an ingenious device that can use sunlight to produce both hydrogen and electricity.

The new UCLA device is a hybrid unit that combines a  supercapacitor with a hydrogen fuel cell, and then runs the whole operation using solar power. As well as the positive and negative electrodes, the device has a third electrode that can either store energy electrically, or use the electrode for water electrolysis, splitting water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

To make these electrodes as efficient as possible, the UCLA team have maximised the amount of surface area coming into contact with water, down to nanoscales. That increases the hydrogen amount the system can produce, as well as the amount of energy that the super-capacitor can store.

 Richard Kaner, (right) senior author of the study said ”People need fuel to run their vehicles and electricity to run their devices. Now you can make both fuel and electricity with a single device." While hydrogen itself is clean, commercial production might not be.  Often created by converting natural gas,  results in a lot of CO2  emissions and can be costly. Use of renewable sources like solar can help solve both of those problems simultaneously.  UCLA has another advantage that device uses  nickel, iron and cobalt, materials which are much more abundant than precious metals such as platinum used currently to produce hydrogen.

"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," says Kaner. "And this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars."


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