Researchers struggle with new ways to produce hydrogen fuel cell

February 21, 2011 0 By Stephen Vagus

Researchers at Penn. State University may have found a more efficient way to producing hydrogen by mimicking plants. Using biomimicry, Thomas Mallouk, of Penn State’s department of chemistry, is trying to replicate photosynthesis as a means to generate hydrogen.

Mallouk calls the process the “hardest way” to make fuel and has struggled with getting an efficiency rating above 0.3% with this method in the past. During his recent meeting with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mallouk announced that using a new model for photosynthesis, he would be able to obtain as high as 15% efficiency – exceeding the rate that hydrogen is produced naturally by 3%.

Using a method devised by colleague Evan Pugh, professor of material chemistry and physics at Penn State, Mallouk uses organic dyes to catch protons much the same way plants catch sunlight. When the photon comes into contact with the dye, and electron is released. If that electron can be made to strike water in a particular way, it will case water molecules to split into oxygen and hydrogen.

Though Mallouk has developed a proof-of-concept model, the system suffers several significant drawbacks. The lifespan of the system is measured in hours, even when using high-quality components. Because of the aggressive nature of the oxidizing agents used as catalysts for the system, more expensive metals must be used, such as titanium and platinum.

Penn. State University Lion Shrine Hydrogen Fuel Cell Research

Other universities are following the same methodology as Mallouk but with a few differences. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for instance, are attempting to use spinach as a catalyst for hydrogen conversions.

Mallouk is continuing to work on a method that is less expensive than his current model and has hope that he will achieve this goal in the near future.