More than half of the world has the ability to produce electricity from hydrogen, the most abundant and cheapest form of fuel, but it’s a notoriously difficult and costly process.
The challenge has been to turn hydrogen into electricity for more than a decade, but recent advances in fuel cell technology have made the process much more efficient and cost-effective.
Now, the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell system is being developed in California and the U.K. The goal is to become a major energy source in the future, and hydrogen is already being used in power stations across the globe.
The latest breakthrough is that scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have made an electron configuration for producing hydrogen from the most expensive and abundant form of the gas.
That configuration uses a nickel-based electron that emits electrons at a certain wavelength.
By adding a nickel atom to that arrangement, scientists have created an electron that can emit electrons at different frequencies.
The resulting combination, called the “bismuth atom,” is a key ingredient in a variety of commercially available hydrogen fuelcell systems, including those in which a nickel core is added to the nickel-electron configuration.
Caltech is a co-organizer of the hydrogen fuel cycle, which has been studied extensively and is considered to be a potential breakthrough in the field.
But what about a few other technologies?
How does this work?
It depends on the electron configuration and the wavelength, says Robert Hickey, professor of chemistry at Caltech.
“We’re using this electron configuration in a very specific way, and we’ve got a very high energy absorption band around the nickel atom,” Hickey says.
Hickey is the senior author of a paper describing the new configuration.
The bismuth ion is a nonmetal atom, which is why it’s so useful for the hydrogen cycle.
Its spin can be used to steer the electron spin, which, in turn, can be important for the electrical behavior of the atom.
Hicky says that although bismoxides are known for their high electron absorption bands, they are extremely rare in nature.
That means they don’t form in the normal way, which means they are much more likely to form in highly structured structures.
“These bismutide atoms have a very, very high absorption band and we can use it to steer a magnetic field,” Hicky said.
“It’s really a key factor in the energy efficiency of these systems.”
The new arrangement can produce hydrogen using nickel atoms as the electron arrangement, and the system can be converted to a commercially available battery.
Hicking says that the device could be a major step toward producing a commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell system.
“This new electron configuration is really a major breakthrough for this research,” he says.
“But it’s also really exciting for hydrogen.”
He says the team is now working on designing a better, simpler, and cheaper electron configuration that could be used in a fuel cell.
“That will make it much more feasible to make the device in the next few years,” he said.
The electron configuration was discovered by Caltech doctoral student David Smith, who is now a senior research associate at the company that developed the electron design.
“There’s a lot we still don’t know about the electron system, but we think we’re on the right track,” Smith said.
Smith is also an expert in materials chemistry, and his research is focused on the properties of non-metal oxides and carbon atoms.
He says that because the electron structure is such a key element of the system, “the fact that we’ve discovered this one particular electron configuration makes it the gold standard in this type of research.”
The paper describing this research was published in the journal Nature Communications.
CalTech is also a founding member of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has awarded about $30 million in grants for the past decade to study and advance the science of the chemical and electrical properties of these non-metallic compounds.