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UofL hydrogen fuel research tests sustainable catalyst development

HIGH-POWERED COLLABORATION: Dr. Gautam Gupta, left, associate professor of chemical engineering, Dr. Robert Buchanan, center, and Dr. Craig Grapperhaus, right, professors of chemistry.

Scientists at the University of Louisville will be developing a method to generate hydrogen fuels that significantly lowers energy use. This research on catalysts for hydrogen will be conducted with funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Hydrogen, which is energy dense and the most abundant element in nature, serves as a promising alternative carbon-free fuel and is an essential building block for industrial and agricultural processes. Currently, 95 percent of industrial hydrogen derives from unsustainable fossil fuel cracking.

NSF funding of the UofL team focuses on development of new catalyst materials for hydrogen evolution reactions, or water splitting, where the bond between hydrogen (H2) and oxygen is released. The current catalyst used in electrolyzers for the production of H2 from water is platinum, which is very expensive. This research tests materials that are inexpensive, abundant, and sustainable, mirroring the process used by plants and bacteria to split water for food production.

The partnership is led by chemistry professors Robert Buchanan and Craig Grapperhaus, and Gautam Gupta, associate professor of chemical engineering in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering. Initial funding of $450,000 over 3 years was secured by Grapperhaus to benchmark homogeneous H2 evolving catalysts. More recently, Buchanan and Gupta received $474,400 over 3 years to translate molecular catalysts to electrode surfaces.

“Hydrogen is a promising high efficiency fuel,” states Buchanan, adding, “molecular catalysts that efficiently catalyze H2 production from acidic aqueous solutions are rare and expensive. We are excited about translating our molecular catalyst chemistry toward making hydrogen competitive with conventional fuels, while reducing the environmental impacts of production.”

Almost all hydrogen produced in the U.S. annually is used to refine petroleum, treat metals, produce fertilizer, and process foods. Lowering the cost of production is a key to widespread use of this fuel in motor vehicles, for instance.

“Molecular electrocatalysts add another dimension to address our grand challenge on hydrogen generation,” said Mahendra Sunkara, director of Conn Center. “This collaborative effort between faculty from chemistry and chemical engineering compliments our ongoing effort on inorganic electrocatalysts and semiconductor development.”

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