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Icon for: Gregory Smith


University of New Mexico


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Don't store it. Reform it! Getting around the hydrogen storage problem.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has proven to be cleaner and more efficient than internal combustion engines, so what’s delaying their commercialization? Well, one major problem is that hydrogen is difficult to store safely in large quantities. The earth is teeming with hydrogen, but it is largely tied up in chemical bonds in hydrocarbons and water. So taking a cue from nature, we can use a hydrogen carrier as an intermediate, from which the hydrogen can be extracted as needed. This is the key idea behind methanol steam reforming (MSR).

The industrial catalyst used in MSR, copper supported by zinc oxide, is effective but rapidly degrades over time, making it unsuitable for mobile applications. In the early 90s however, Japanese researchers noticed that a palladium catalyst over zinc oxide was catalyzing the same reaction, except this catalyst did not degrade significantly over time. They later concluded that a palladium zinc (PdZn) alloy was responsible for this unexpected activity.

In order to improve catalysts and design new ones, it helps to understand exactly what is happening during these complex surface reactions. This information is not easily accessible through experiment, so modeling surface sites using quantum mechanical techniques can help determine likely reaction pathways. Our group has been using this technique to try to understand the initial steps of MSR in atomic detail, to help in the rational design of future catalysts.