ASU researcher gets grant to explore new methods of hydrogen generation

January 20, 2005

TEMPE, Ariz. - A group of ASU researchers at the Biodesign Institute received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore innovative methods for generating hydrogen.

The four-year grant is part of a new round of DOE funded projects in support of President Bush's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, to address the technical and economic challenges in developing renewable and distributed hydrogen production technologies.

Hydrogen is an attractive energy source because it produces no pollution and is abundant (water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen). But several technical challenges have hampered hydrogen development, including those pertaining to the splitting of water to produce hydrogen molecules.

Neal Woodbury, director of the Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology at the Biodesign Institute, is the principal investigator on the ASU grant, which he says will explore new ways to efficiently convert water into hydrogen. The research will focus on the development of new catalysts - materials that facilitate chemical conversion processes - for converting water to hydrogen.

"We want to come up with a material that will be near the thermodynamic limit of what is possible in converting water into hydrogen," said Woodbury, who also is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at ASU. Woodbury's team includes Jim Allen and Jo Ann Williams, both in ASU's chemistry and biochemistry department, and Trevor Thornton, director of the Center for Solid State Electronics Research.

Current processes that split water into hydrogen and oxygen use more energy than what is chemically required, Woodbury said. "Right now, it takes around 2.2 volts of electricity to create hydrogen in a commercial system. We want to drop that to 1.3 or 1.2 volts, which would be an energy savings of 40 percent."

Woodbury said he is looking to nature for clues on efficient hydrogen conversion.

"We are using plants as a model for our reactions," he added. "Nature has been developing and employing these types of conversion processes for billions of years."

For example, plants take carbon dioxide in the air and through photosynthesis, selectively add electrons and protons to make sugar. Humans, in turn, eat the sugar and oxidize it again to make carbon dioxide.

"So the cycle between us [humans] and the plant is very much like the cycle we'd like to have between water and hydrogen," Woodbury explained.

Nature has developed a catalyst, called the oxygen evolving complex that aids the conversion process. The team will look at possible manganese-based catalyst materials to facilitate the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

In nature, "it splits the water into oxygen and protons," Woodbury said. "There is a cluster of manganese atoms involved in the process that basically interacts with water. We are learning more and more about that process and how nature does it. The question becomes how do we translate that into something practical."

The first step will be to work with peptides and to develop an array of material combinations as potential catalysts. The researchers will take the best of the first crop of catalysts and tweak them for further testing and development.

"Eventually we expect to find a catalyst that has the right function and comes very close to replicating the process in nature," Woodbury said. "We then plan to put that catalyst material right on an electrode, which is commonly used in water-splitting processes, to make the overall process more efficient."

Woodbury added that such an efficient process then could be driven by a renewable energy source, such as solar energy or wind energy, making the overall hydrogen production process independent of the use of any fossil fuels.
Using living systems as the model for its research, the Biodesign Institute integrates traditionally distinct sciences including biology, nanotechnology, engineering and information technology. The institute currently is pursuing innovations in healthcare, national security and environmental sustainability. For more information go to, or call 480-727-8322.

ASU Media contact: Skip Derra, 480-965-4823

Source: Neal Woodbury, 480-965-3294

Arizona State University

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