Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered — or catalyzed — by a nanoparticle made of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. The results of the research will be published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Schaak explained that the purpose of this nanoparticle is to help produce hydrogen from water — a process that is important for many energy-production technologies including fuel cells and solar cells. “Water is an ideal fuel, because it is cheap and abundant, but we need to be able to extract hydrogen from it,” Schaak said. Hydrogen has a high energy density and is a great energy carrier, Schaak explained, but it requires energy to produce. To make its production practical, scientists have been hunting for a way to trigger the required chemical reactions with an inexpensive catalyst. Platinum works, but it is expensive and relatively rare, so Schaak and his team have been searching for alternative materials.
“There were some predictions that nickel phosphide might be a good candidate, and we already had been working with nickel phosphide nanoparticles for several years,” Schaak said. “It turns out that nanoparticles of nickel phosphide are indeed active for producing hydrogen and are comparable to the best known alternatives to platinum.”