Engineers develop low-cost material inspired by prickly pear cactus to boost hydrogen production

Over 100 years ago, scientists discovered a method to convert water into hydrogen gas, which is commonly referred to as “the fuel of the future.” Despite this significant breakthrough, hydrogen has not gained popularity as a primary source of energy due to its inefficient and expensive electrolysis process.

Recently, researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso have proposed a cost-effective solution to split water more efficiently using a nickel-based material inspired by a desert succulent plant known as the prickly pear cactus. In a paper published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the researchers described the material.

The study’s lead author, Ramana Chintalapalle, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor at UTEP, stated that their approach is “nature-inspired design in the laboratory.” They were inspired by the plant’s ability to absorb moisture on its extensive surface and thrive in harsh environments, prompting them to consider incorporating this feature into their research.

The hydrogen problem

Electrolysis involves using electricity and an electrocatalyst to break down water. To date, platinum has been the primary catalyst used to split water, but it has significant drawbacks.

Platinum is extremely expensive, more so than gold, which makes it impractical for large-scale use. Professor Chintalapalle notes that a more cost-effective catalyst is needed to make hydrogen adoption possible for every nation.

A prickly solution

Navid Attarzadeh, a doctoral student in environmental science and engineering, stumbled upon the prickly pear cactus while on his way to UTEP’s Center for Advanced Materials Research lab. The team had been searching for a replacement for platinum as a catalyst and had been exploring nickel.

While observing the plant’s extraordinary surface area, Attarzadeh had an idea. What if they created a 3D nickel-based catalyst in the shape of the prickly pear cactus? The larger surface area could accommodate more electrochemical reactions, producing more hydrogen than nickel could typically generate.

The team swiftly designed a nano-scale structure, which they put to the test, repeatedly testing the catalyst’s ability to split water, with positive results.

Chintalapalle emphasized that while this is a significant discovery, further refinement is required. However, he believes that hydrogen gas could revolutionize energy technology, potentially eliminating carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: University of Texas at El Paso

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