Iron and nickel used as catalysts for hydrogen

A joint project by Australian scientists has found a way to produce hydrogen using iron and nickel as catalysts, potentially speeding up the hydrogen manufacturing process while significantly cutting costs.

The team, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Swinburne University of Technology, and Griffith University set out to demonstrate how to split hydrogen from oxygen in water molecules, without using precious metals such as ruthenium, platinum, and iridium.

Using iron and nickel instead, two readily available metals, the researchers could have found a low-cost method of producing hydrogen for the manufacture of fuel cells and industrial process heat, explained Chuan Zhao from the UNSW School of Chemistry.

“On this catalyst there is a tiny nano-scale interface where the iron and nickel meet at the atomic level, which becomes an active site for splitting water. This is where hydrogen can be split from oxygen and captured as fuel, and the oxygen can be released as an environmentally-friendly waste,” said Zhao.

Working at the nano-scale enabled Zhao and the team to find an effective method of using iron and nickel for hydrogen generation, as these elements were previously not thought to be good catalysts.

“The nanoscale interface fundamentally changes the property of these materials,” said Zhao. “Our results show the nickel-iron catalyst can be as active as the platinum one for hydrogen generation.”

With iron and nickel thousands of times cheaper than their precious metal counterparts, hydrogen could be produced on demand at refuelling stations, and increase the pace at which industries can transition from fossil fuels.

“We’re hoping our research can be used by stations like these to make their own hydrogen using sustainable sources such as water, solar and these low cost, yet efficient, catalysts,” said Zhao.