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Hydrogen-powered fuel cells could provide efficient, reliable power for everything from buildings to autos and wireless devices. But there’s a big problem: how do you get the hydrogen in the first place?

The most common methods of producing hydrogen-separating it from steam, extracting it from methanol or biomass such as corn, or simply splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen-are expensive and make the so-called hydrogen economy seem decades away. Scientists are making progress, though, by improving the catalysts employed in many of these hydrogen-producing reactions. Common catalysts have included precious metals like gold and platinum. But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have constructed a catalyst from nickel, aluminum, and tin that could be hundreds of times less expensive and still accelerate reactions involving either methanol or biomass. “Using a nickel-based catalyst can greatly reduce costs, especially for a larger reaction,” says Randy Cortright, a member of the Wisconsin team who founded Virent Energy of Madison, WI, to commercialize the method.

Cheaper materials are just part of this cost equation. James Dumesic, head of the Wisconsin team, says finding “catalysts that are either more active or will work at lower temperatures” is another crucial step. Most commercial hydrogen today is produced in natural-gas power plants by reacting steam and methane over a catalyst at high temperatures. But cooler reactions requiring less energy could make smaller-scale hydrogen production affordable. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new process, which involves adding iron to the catalysts, that can lower the temperature of hydrogen-producing reactions-conceivably making hydrogen energy, in the long run, cheap enough that commercial buildings or homes could have their own power supplies.

To spur further innovation, in January the U.S. Department of Energy will announce as much as $80 million in grants for hydrogen production research. And scientists think continued tinkering with new catalysts can bring hydrogen power into the mainstream. “This materials breakthrough is going to happen,” says John Turner, a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. “We just don’t know when.”

Catalyst Catalogue Group Type of Reaction Fuel Source Catalyst Materials University of Wisconsin-
Madison, Virent Energy

(Madison, WI) Liquid reforming of hydrogen from sugars Biomass feedstocks such as glucose Nickel, tin, aluminum Georgia Institute of
Technology
(Atlanta, GA) Steam reforming Natural gas Iron added to cerium oxide, praseodymium oxide terbium Tufts University
(Medford, MA) Water and carbon monoxide make hydrogen and carbon
dioxide Natural gas or other fossil fuels Cerium oxide with one-tenth the gold previously used National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, CO), University of Hawaii(Honolulu, HI), University of California, Santa Barbara Splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen Sunlight and water Silicon and metal oxide compounds integrated into solar cells

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