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Generating Hydrogen by Splitting Water with Embedded Swarf



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Hydrogen And Electrolysis Costs

Hydrogen is a promising fuel for a green economy, from transportation to energy storage, and may be the only realistic carbon-free alternative fuel for many industries like shipping and air flight.

One key factor that has been holding back the emergence of the hydrogen economy is the cost, especially the cost of hydrogen production.

Green hydrogen (from renewable energy) is mainly produced through electrolysis, which requires a lot of energy and catalysts. Such catalysts tend to be expensive, relying in most cases on metals like platinum. The more platinum used, the more expensive the electrolyzer.

Not only are metals like platinum expensive, but they are also extremely rare and would be in short supply if hydrogen were mass-adopted as an energy source.

So, it was important news that researchers announced a drastic reduction in the catalyst requirement for electrolysis.

We are able to produce hydrogen from water using only a tenth of the amount of platinum loading compared to state-of-the-art commercial catalysts.” – Dr Madasamy Thangamuthu, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham.

Cheap Electrolysis With Swarf (Scrap Metal)

This discovery was made by researchers at the University of Nottingham, UK, and published in the Journal of Material Chemistry, under the title “From scrap metal to highly efficient electrodes: harnessing the nanotextured surface of swarf for effective utilization of Pt and Co for hydrogen production”.

The initial findings came from analyzing swarf at the nanoscale. Swarf is scrap metal spirals generated as waste when machining metal like stainless steel, titanium, or nickel alloy. Industries in the UK alone generate millions of tons of metal waste annually.

When analyzing these swarfs with an electron microscope, the researchers discovered that far from smooth, these metal waste products had grooves and ridges that were only tens of nanometers wide.

These very complex structures and massive contact surfaces would make for ideal substrates for electrocatalysts used in electrolysis for hydrogen production.

Magnetic Platinum Rain On Swarfs

To add platinum atoms to the swarf, the researchers used a technique called magnetron sputtering. This is a technique used in semiconductor production to deposit an ultra-thin film of metal, thanks to powerful magnetic fields.

Source: Korvus Tech

This method “rains” platinum atoms upon the swarf, and deposits them in the nanometer-sized grooves and ridges.

By spreading just 28 micrograms of the precious metal over 1 cm² of the swarf, we were able to create a laboratory-scale electrolyzer that operates with 100% efficiency and produces 0.5 liters of hydrogen gas per minute just from a single piece of swarf.” – Dr Madasamy Thangamuthu, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham.

This method allowed for the creation of 2 types of hydrogen-generating electrocatalysts:

The Nottingham researchers are now working with the company AqSorption to scale up the technology.

Bringing Together Hydrogen Innovations

New Catalyst Paradigms

The building of the hydrogen economy will require that every step of the hydrogen production and distribution chain become as efficient as possible.

Until recently, the rarity and high cost of platinum and cobalt-based catalysts made it necessary to discover alternative catalysts. For example, we discussed the possibility of using nickel nanorods in “Hydrogen Production Advancements with Nickel Based Electrolysis” and alternative catalysts like ruthenium, silicon, and tungsten (RuSiW) in “Green Hydrogen Set to Replace Grey as New Electrocatalysts Make Production Cost-Effective”.

The discovery of using swarf could remove the need for such new catalysts.

Maybe these innovations could be combined to create even more efficient new types of catalysts. Alternatively, now that the platinum amount required can be reduced 10 times, using nanorods of platinum to reach ultra-high levels of catalysis efficiency could be an option.

Hydrogen Tech Improving & Ammonia

This will likely combined with other innovations, like more efficient storage of hydrogen as discussed in “Hydrogen Just Became More Attractive as an Energy Source Through Containment Breakthrough“. Efficient conversion of hydrogen into power as discussed in “Are Battery Cells Just Precursor to Hydrogen Fuel Cells? The Real Next-Gen of EVs?”.

Finally, the high-efficiency, low-cost hydrogen electrolysis, storage, and utilization could be combined with mass usage of ammonia as a fuel, transport, and long-term storage form of hydrogen, as discussed in “Decarbonizing Global Shipping Lanes through Green Ammonia” and “Ammonia Production is Hugely Detrimental to the Environment – Engineers Have Just Developed a Cleaner Method”.

Hydrogen-Focused Companies

1. Sibanye Stillwater

finviz dynamic chart for  SBSW

The use of swarf for hydrogen production could dramatically increase the viability of mass adoption of green hydrogen by making platinum-based electrolysis economically viable.

This could be a massive boost to the platinum market, which has been under pressure in recent years.

A key part of the under-performance of platinum was due to its strong reliance on demand for catalytic converters in fuel cars and trucks. With the world turning toward EVs, this was putting in question the viability of demand for this metal.

Alternatively, if platinum-based electrolysis using scrap metal from the aerospace industry becomes a center of the hydrogen economy, platinum demand for the decades to come is assured.

South African Sibanye Stillwater is one of the largest platinum producers in the world. The country produces 80% of the world's platinum, and Sibanye Stillwater is responsible for a quarter of that production.

It is also a producer of platinum metal groups elements like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium. It is currently diversifying to enter the gold and battery metal markets.

The platinum market has been controlled by the discussion over the adoption of EVs versus ICE (Internal Combustion Engine). With rapid innovation in the use of hydrogen electrolysis of platinum and other platinum metal group elements, this might change.

Platinum is also required in most designs of fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity. So overall, the progress made in hydrogen technology, including swarf-based electrolysis but not only, should benefit platinum-focused miners like Sibanye Stillwater.

2. Ballard Power Systems Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  BLDP

Ballard is a fuel cell manufacturer, and a pioneer of the technology with its first fuel cell bus produced in 1993.

The company is focused on heavy-duty markets: buses, trucks, trains/trams, ships, mining/construction, and power. While buses have been the core of the business, the company expects that by 2025 trucks will be a major business segment. It also expects Europe to stay its main market (50-60%), followed by North America (25%).

Trucking fuel cells are expected to keep growing and represent a $7.5B market in 2030 (from a $195B TAM), almost as large as all the other hydrogen/fuel cell applications combined. This growth could accelerate if hydrogen production prices decline thanks to new technologies.

Source: Ballard

Because of the higher power required, and the need for quick charging, heavy-duty vehicles have been a good market for hydrogen and fuel cells over lighter vehicles like cars. It also reduces the need for catenary wire for rail and trolley buses, and fast recharging for long-distance hauling.

Source: Ballard

The company is not a stranger to ammonia either, with for example a recent contract with Amogy to provide it with fuel cells for its “ammonia-to-power platform which relies on unique ammonia cracking technology”.

While EVs have a reasonable chance to quickly take over the car markets, heavier vehicles are harder to decarbonize. With its established leadership in the sector, Ballard would be a prime beneficiary of a policy push toward a hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen production becoming quickly cheaper thanks to progress in catalysts mechanically reducing the cost of fuels of hydrogen-powered vehicles. With oil prices rising due to geopolitical tensions and growing carbon taxes, this might tip the scale in favor of hydrogen, especially for vehicles requiring a lot of power and driving a lot of mileage (trucks, buses, etc.).

Jonathan is a former biochemist researcher who worked in genetic analysis and clinical trials. He is now a stock analyst and finance writer with a focus on innovation, market cycles and geopolitics in his publication 'The Eurasian Century".