Invention Could Help Power Electric Vehicles

David Ryan Image by Adrien Bisson
Prof. David Ryan was recently awarded a patent for catalytic hydrogen production alongside co-inventor Mahesh Jayamanna '16.

By Brooke Coupal

Hydrogen may be the way of the future when it comes to powering electric vehicles, and one professor and his team of researchers have found a method of producing the gas safely and effectively.

Prof. David Ryan, chair of the Chemistry Department, and co-inventor Mahesh Jayamanna '16 were recently awarded a patent for catalytic hydrogen production. Their invention produces hydrogen on demand by combining water, carbon dioxide and nanostructured cobalt metal at relatively low temperature and pressure.

Ryan says two companies have expressed interest in licensing the patent. The companies are looking to use the invention to produce hydrogen that can then be used to power electric vehicles. Hydrogen is an appealing energy carrier because it does not emit greenhouse gases, only water.

“Hydrogen is very clean,” Ryan says. “You put hydrogen in, and you get energy and water out.”

Through Ryan and Jayamanna’s method of hydrogen production, cobalt is placed inside a canister, which would then be put into a vehicle. A carbonate solution made from carbon dioxide and water is pumped through the canister as heat and pressure are applied. Hydrogen forms and goes directly to a fuel cell, where the gas is mixed with oxygen from the air to produce electricity. The reaction also produces water, which is recycled back into the hydrogen generator.

“It’s on-demand production of hydrogen,” says Ryan. “If there was some sort of an accident or disruption in the process, you either release the pressure or the system cools down and the reaction stops, so you’re no longer producing hydrogen.”

Being able to halt hydrogen production quickly is crucial, because hydrogen used in fuel cells is flammable and runs the risk of causing an explosion if the vehicle crashes. Using the newly patented method, hydrogen is not stored, but cobalt is, which Ryan says is not toxic or harmful if it spills.

According to Ryan, the cobalt in the canister eventually converts to cobalt oxide, at which point a new canister would need to be put into the vehicle. The cobalt oxide in the old container can be regenerated into cobalt metal by using hydrogen.

“It’s done at a slightly elevated temperature,” Ryan says. “You pass hydrogen over the cobalt oxide and convert it back to cobalt metal.”

He adds that any reduced carbon source could also regenerate the fuel, but that using hydrogen is the “simplest and cleanest” way.

In addition to powering electric vehicles, one of the companies interested in licensing the patent is looking at the potential of using the invention to provide electricity to villages around the world that don’t have access to it. Ryan says he and his team of researchers have not scaled their experiments up to this level, but there is potential to do so.