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Start-Up Gains Hydrogen Fuel Technology Funds

Fuel cell engine

Fuel cell engine in Hyundai Tucson (A. Kotok)

22 May 2020. A spin-off company from a university engineering lab received funds to build a device that efficiently splits water and creates hydrogen for fuel cell cars. National Science Foundation awarded $750,000 for a two-year project to develop the water-splitting device to Avium LLC in Lawrence, Kansas, a company licensing research from University of Kansas.

Avium is a three year-old enterprise founded by Joseph Barforoush, then a doctoral candidate in engineering at Kansas, and Kevin Leonard, a chemical engineering professor and adviser to Barforoush. Avium’s technology, based on Barforoush’s research, offers a simpler and less expensive process for splitting hydrogen atoms from water. This process is needed by makers of hydrogen fuel-cell cars that use hydrogen to generate electric power, but face a lack of hydrogen fueling stations, which limits vehicle sales. A particular problem is delivery of hydrogen to refueling stations, which can be difficult and hazardous.

Avium’s technology also offers a more sustainable process for hydrogen production. The company says 95 percent of today’s automotive hydrogen is made with fossil fuels, then delivered by trucks burning fossil fuels to refueling stations.

Leonard’s lab studies electrocatalysts, materials that increase the efficiency of chemical processes in energy, including the dividing of hydrogen from oxygen atoms in water. “What we want to do,” says Leonard in a university statement, “is develop an on-site hydrogen generator for fueling stations for fuel-cell electric vehicles. They can essentially just take water and electricity, which is already available there, and generate hydrogen on demand instead of having a truck in from a chemical plant.”

The key to an on-site hydrogen production system is the catalyst for splitting water to extract hydrogen. While catalysts are already in use for this process, they’re often made from rare or expensive materials like platinum. The Avium technology uses catalysts made with more readily available and inexpensive materials such as iron and nickel. In previous work, including an earlier NSF grant, Barforoush and Leonard identified the optimum mix and configuration of these materials in an early-stage prototype that matches or exceeds capacity and performance of conventional electrolyzer devices.

The new NSF award supports Avium’s building of a full-scale prototype electrolyzer device. The electrolyzer uses electrodes made with catalysts configured in a dual-element matrix containing iron and nickel. The project calls for Avium and Leonard’s lab to design and build electrodes for industrial-scale production of hydrogen in real-life quantities and meeting automotive industry quality standards for hydrogen fuel.

Barforoush and Leonard came away from interviews in California with hydrogen fuel cell car owners and people in the hydrogen industry convinced that their process could fill an immediate need and eliminate recurring shortages. “Hydrogen refueling stations are at the bottom of the supply chain because they have relatively low demand right now,” notes Barforoush, adding “Cost-effectively producing hydrogen on-site from electricity and water could eliminate the logistical issues of delivered hydrogen while also allowing for greater utilization of renewable electricity.”

The NSF award is made under the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research or SBIR program. Early-stage SBIR grants offer up to $256,000 to determine commercial and technical feasibility, while later-stage awards provide up to $1 million for working prototypes.

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