Nanoparticle opens the door to clean-energy alternatives

Jun 13, 2013 by Katrina Voss
Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered -- or catalyzed -- by a nanoparticle composed of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. This transmission-electron microscope image shows a collection of quasi-spherical nickel phosphide nanoparticles. Credit: Eric Popczun, Penn State University

(Phys.org) —Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered—or catalyzed—by a nanoparticle composed of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. The results of the research will be published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Schaak explained that the purpose of the nickel phosphide nanoparticle is to help produce hydrogen from water, which is a process that is important for many energy-production technologies, including fuel cells and . "Water is an ideal fuel, because it is cheap and abundant, but we need to be able to extract hydrogen from it," Schaak said. Hydrogen has a high and is a great energy carrier, Schaak explained, but it requires energy to produce. To make its production practical, scientists have been hunting for a way to trigger the required chemical reactions with an inexpensive catalyst. Schaak noted that this feat is accomplished very well by platinum but, because platinum is expensive and relatively rare, he and his team have been searching for alternative materials. "There were some predictions that nickel phosphide might be a good candidate, and we had already been working with nickel phosphide nanoparticles for several years," Schaak said. "It turns out that nanoparticles of nickel phosphide are indeed active for and are comparable to the best known alternatives to platinum."

To create the nickel phosphide nanoparticles, team members began with metal salts that are commercially available. They then dissolved these salts in solvents, added other , and heated the solution to allow the nanoparticles to form. The researchers were able create a nanoparticle that was quasi-spherical—not a perfect sphere, but spherical with many flat, exposed edges. "The small size of the nanoparticles creates a high surface area, and the exposed edges means that a large number of sites are available to catalyze the chemical reaction that produces hydrogen," Schaak explained.

Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered -- or catalyzed -- by a nanoparticle composed of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. This illustration shows hydrogen gas bubbling off of the surface of a nickel phosphide crystal. Credit: Eric Popczun, Penn State University

The next step was for team members at the California Institute of Technology to test the nanoparticles' performance in catalyzing the necessary chemical reactions. Led by Nathan S. Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, the researchers performed these tests by placing the nanoparticles onto a sheet of titanium foil and immersing that sheet in a solution of sulfuric acid. Next, the researchers applied a voltage and measured the current produced. They found that, not only were the chemical reactions happening as they had hoped, they also were happening with a high degree of efficacy.

"Nanoparticle technology has already started to open the door to cheaper and cleaner energy that is also efficient and useful," Schaak said. "The goal now is to further improve the performance of these and to understand what makes them function the way they do. Also, our team members believe that our success with nickel can pave the way toward the discovery of other new catalysts that also are comprised of Earth-abundant materials. Insights from this discovery may lead to even better catalysts in the future."

Explore further: UO-industry collaboration points to improved nanomaterials

Related Stories

New method for producing clean hydrogen

May 21, 2013

Duke University engineers have developed a novel method for producing clean hydrogen, which could prove essential to weaning society off of fossil fuels and their environmental implications.

Charge your mobile phone with formic acid?

May 27, 2013

(Phys.org) —Surprisingly the answer is yes. With the technology of today it is possible to use environmental friendly formic acid in fuel cell powering your mobile phone or laptop. Physicist Florian Nitze, ...

Metal-free catalyst outperforms platinum in fuel cell

Jun 05, 2013

Researchers from South Korea, Case Western Reserve University and University of North Texas have discovered an inexpensive and easily produced catalyst that performs better than platinum in oxygen-reduction ...

Size matters when reducing NiO nanoparticles

Nov 27, 2012

(Phys.org)—New research finds that size plays a major role in how nanoscale nickel oxide (NiO) shells behave when being reduced to solid nickel nanoparticles.

Recommended for you

Paper electronics could make health care more accessible

Nov 19, 2014

Flexible electronic sensors based on paper—an inexpensive material—have the potential to some day cut the price of a wide range of medical tools, from helpful robots to diagnostic tests. Scientists have ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PPihkala
not rated yet Jun 14, 2013
So when can someone buy these nanoparticle coated plates for a HHO generator?
ValeriaT
not rated yet Jun 14, 2013
Never, because the main source of energy losses is not the evolution of hydrogen, but the over-voltage at the oxygen electrode, which wasn't even attempted to solve in this study at all. The hydrogen energetics is an economical unviable even without this study. It just serves as a salary generator for researchers involved and the cold fusion will wipe it all.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.