Breakthrough cheap catalyst can make hydrogen fuel for hours on end

18 Oct 2019

Experimental hydrogen fuel cell. Image: © hopsalka/

This week in future tech, attempts to make large-scale hydrogen gas production affordable have resulted in a new, cheap catalyst.

Before hydrogen vehicles can take to the road en masse, a readily available and affordable source of locally produced hydrogen gas is needed. Now, researchers from the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have shown for the first time that a cheap catalyst can split water and generate hydrogen gas for hours on end in the harsh environment of a commercial device.

“Hydrogen gas is a massively important industrial chemical for making fuel and fertiliser, among other things,” said Thomas Jaramillo, who led the research team.

“It’s also a clean, high-energy-content molecule that can be used in fuel cells or to store energy generated by variable power sources like solar and wind. But most of the hydrogen produced today is made with fossil fuels, adding to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. We need a cost-effective way to produce it with clean energy.”

Writing in Nature Nanotechnology, the breakthrough based on a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), has potential for large-scale hydrogen production powered by renewable energy. Previously, platinum and iridium were needed for catalysts to boost an electrolyser’s efficiency. However, this catalyst uses cobalt phosphide nanoparticles deposited on carbon to form a fine black powder.

The cobalt phosphide catalyst operated extremely well for the entire duration of the test, more than 1,700 hours, suggesting it could be used in extreme environments.

China unveils UFO-like ‘Super Great White Shark’ attack helicopter

China-based Global Times has revealed a prototype image of the country’s first flying saucer-like attack helicopter. Apparently dubbed the ‘Super Great White Shark’, the aim is to have the highly experimental craft make its maiden journey in 2020.

Showcased at the fifth China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin, the craft will achieve lift using a coaxial rotor system at its centre with two pilots on board. It will have a top speed of 650kph and a climb rate of 16.5 metres per second.

However, critics have warned that the flying saucer may never be practical due to stability issues, with the US being a notable example of a nation that previously tried and failed with a flying saucer design.

“Whether or not this particular helicopter can become practical, such explorations are beneficial to China’s technology development for future helicopters,” an anonymous military expert told Global Times.

SpaceX plans for 30,000 more satellites in orbit

Space News has reported that SpaceX is seeking permission to place another 30,000 satellites in orbit as part of its Starlink constellation project to bring broadband to the entire world.

If passed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it would bring SpaceX’s total satellite count to 42,000 when completed. So far, it has deployed 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, but could bring this number up to 1,000 by the end of this year.

The ITU is a UN body responsible for ensuring communications in orbit don’t swamp or interrupt other orbiting satellites. In its filings, SpaceX said it wants to place the 30,000 satellites in low Earth orbit ranging from 328km to 580km.

Telecoms analyst Tim Farrar – a critic of SpaceX’s plans – claimed that it was unlikely the company could build and launch such a number. He added that the 20 separate filings were an effort by SpaceX to “drown the ITU in studies” as it continues the Starlink project.

A spokesperson for SpaceX said it is “taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs”.

Futuristic 3D printer is the ‘future of manufacturing’

Researchers at Northwestern University have unveiled a new 3D printer that is apparently so big and so fast it can print an object the size of an adult human in just a couple of hours.

The prototype high-area rapid printing (HARP) device is almost four metres high and prints about 0.5 metres per hour. It can print single, large parts or many different small parts at once.

“3D printing is conceptually powerful but has been limited practically,” said Chad A Mirkin, who led the product’s development. “If we could print fast without limitations on materials and size, we could revolutionise manufacturing. HARP is poised to do that.”

Key to the technology’s breakthrough was finding a way to dissipate heat generated by 3D printers at high speed using a non-stick liquid that behaves like liquid Teflon. HARP projects light through a window to solidify resin on top of a vertically moving plate. The liquid flows over the window to remove heat and then circulates it through a cooling unit.

The researchers’ work has been published to Science, with expectations that HARP could be available commercially within the next 18 months.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic