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Renewable, Reliable


By Dan Gordon '85

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

You've heard of cars powered by the sun but now, get ready for cars powered by hydrogen.

Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

A solar-powered invention by UCLA researchers could have a major impact on the fuel that powers our vehicles and the electricity that runs our devices. The device, which creates and stores energy inexpensively and efficiently, could usher in an era of hydrogen-fueled cars.

Traditional hydrogen fuel cells and energy-storing supercapacitors have two electrodes. The device developed at UCLA has a third electrode that acts as both a supercapacitor and a device for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. All three electrodes connect to a single solar cell — the device’s power source. The electrical energy harvested can be stored either as an electrical charge in the supercapacitor or chemically, as hydrogen.

“Renewable energy is not always reliable, so to power an entire system we need ways to store the energy,” says Maher El-Kady Ph.D. ’13, a UCLA postdoc on the research team headed by Richard Kaner, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and of materials science and engineering. “This device does that, and gives us a green method for producing the cleanest form of fuel.”

Hydrogen-powered vehicles have long been seen as a holy grail for automobile manufacturing, since hydrogen emits only water into the air. But the expense of the technology has prevented it from going mainstream.

The UCLA team’s device produces hydrogen using nickel, iron and cobalt — much cheaper elements than the precious metals currently used. Plus, designing the electrodes at the nanoscale maximizes the surface area exposed to water, increasing the amount of hydrogen the device can produce and enabling the supercapacitor to store more charge.

El-Kady notes that currently, about 95 percent of hydrogen production worldwide relies on converting fossil fuels, which “releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the air, so it’s not really ‘green.’” Using solar cells and abundantly available elements to produce hydrogen through water electrolysis is a green way to do that, at a much lower cost.

The device also could lead to supercapacitors that can store five times as much as current versions, El-Kady says — a potential boon for large cities. The prototype developed at UCLA is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand; the next step is to create an industrial-size version.