Solar Powered Supercapacitor Produces Hydrogen Fuel and Electricity

©. Reed Hutchinson / UCLA

To help satisfy the demand for both hydrogen and electricity, UCLA has created a device that produces both using solar power.

The supercapacitor hydrogen fuel cell hybrid could be used to store energy for powering devices like computers and smartphones as well as give a boost to hydrogen powered cars in the future.

"People need fuel to run their vehicles and electricity to run their devices," said Richard Kaner, professor of chemistry, biochemistry, materials science and engineering. "Now you can make both fuel and electricity with a single device."

It is a cheaper solution than other hydrogen technologies because it uses nickel, iron and cobalt, which are more abundant than the precious metals typically used. This could lower the cost of hydrogen cars, which are still far more expensive than internal combustion engine or electric cars.

It could also be a large energy storage solution for cities. On a large scale the device could both provide electricity and act as energy storage, balancing out power load of the grid. Once converted to hydrogen, the energy can be stored indefinitely.

This technology uses a much cleaner process than typical methods for producing hydrogen. Usually natural gas is used in the process, which results in carbon dioxide emissions. This device uses solar power to split water molecules, which is far from new, but this device does take a new approach.

Researchers designed the electrodes at the nanoscale to expose the greatest amount of surface area to the water. The electrodes are thousands of times thinner than the thickness of a human hair. The more water that comes in contact with the electrodes, the more hydrogen that is produced. This also increases the energy that can be stored in the supercapacitor.

Right now the device is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but the researchers believe it could easily be scaled up thanks to the inexpensive materials it's made from.