A chemical revolution

A chemical revolution

Researchers at University of Calgary make storing energy cheaper and cleaner
November 6, 2013

A Calgary spin-off company is poised for growth in the multi-billion dollar renewable energy sector and is using state-of-the-art equipment funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to do it.

According to a 2011 Bloomberg report, global investments in the renewable energy market will reach $395 billion by 2020. This presents a significant opportunity for manufacturers to develop efficient energy storage solutions for solar and wind power. What’s holding things back is the ability to store this power over a long period of time to use when there is neither sun nor wind.

Hydrogen fuel could solve this problem: solar or wind power provides electricity to an electrolyzer that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen is stored and can be cleanly burned or consumed in a fuel cell on cloudy or windless days to generate energy. The challenge is to extract hydrogen from water in an economical and sustainable way. Current water-splitting electrolyzers use catalysts made of rare or expensive metals such as platinum and iridium.

Simon Trudel and Curtis P. Berlinguette have developed a catalyst at the University of Calgary (U of C) made of a form of iron oxide, or rust, which is 1,000 times cheaper than current ones and just as effective. The catalyst reduces the amount of electricity needed to split water, making the process more affordable and energy-efficient.

In 2011, Trudel and Berlinguette co-founded FireWater Fuel Corp. to further develop and commercialize their catalyst for commercial use. The company’s research team is using some of the most sophisticated fabrication, electrochemical, and spectroscopic instrumentation in the world, funded by the CFI and housed in a lab at the U of C, to further improve the second generation model of the catalyst and develop a prototype.