Nanotechnology could help hydrogen become a truly affordable, clean, green energy source

Creating an affordable, renewable and sustainable source of energy from hydrogen could be unlocked with the innovative use of screen-printed nanotechnology.

After winning a £100,000 grant from Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) are testing a way to provide a green source of power that could be harnessed by remote communities who are off the electricity grid and reliant on imported diesel and petrol for generators.

“Isolated communities often need to be self-sufficient in terms of their energy generation but rely on expensive imported fuel due to often being geographically too isolated for a gas supply to be piped to them,” said research associate Dr Samuel Rowley-Neale. “This is the perfect opportunity to explore whether we can produce a less polluting alternative to current fossil fuel-based energy generation techniques.”

The idea is to print large volumes of inexpensive electrodes for use in electrolysers, which breaks water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be stored or transported and fed into fuel cells when needed to create electricity on demand as a more dependable and efficient source of fuel than solar, wind, wave and tidal energy.

Dr Rowley-Neale added: “The electricity generated by wind, wave, tidal and solar power is often ill correlated to consumer demand and typically has to be fed into the National Grid where it is used instantly or must be expensively captured somehow, such as in a battery – which has issues with degradation – or else the turbines have to be shut off to ensure the generated electricity does not overload the electricity grid.

“In contrast, an electrolyser creates hydrogen that can be easily stored and physically transported as a gas with no deterioration, and then later fed into a fuel cell for conversion to power when needed. And unlike the burning of fossil fuels, the only by-product is oxygen and some water that are harmless to the environment.”

It builds on previous MMU work into finding an alternate way of manufacturing electrodes that are traditionally reliant on components made from expensive platinum and iridium metal elements whose cost prohibits cheap reproduction.

Under the project, the MMU team plans to screen print the electrodes with graphene-like nanotechnology embedded in a carbon-based printer ink at the University’s new £4 million Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre. The technique will enable the electrodes to be printed in novel shapes and styles, as well as allowing them to be mass produced for industrial applications.

The researchers are collaborating with the European Marine Energy Centre, a test and development centre for wave and tidal devices based on Orkney, Scotland, to research the capabilities and performance of the screen-printed electrolysers, the cells and the fuel cells.

There will be six months of electrode development at the University followed by installation of the electrolyser stack in Scotland and connection to a renewable energy system and then a further six months’ harsh weather testing.