Tag Archives: hydrogen

PlasCarb: producing graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waster

I have two tidbits about PlasCarb the first being an announcement of its existence and the second an announcement of its recently published research. A Jan. 13, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the PlasCarb project (Note: A link has been removed),

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is leading a European collaborative project that aims to transform food waste into a sustainable source of significant economic added value, namely graphene and renewable hydrogen.

The project titled PlasCarb will transform biogas generated by the anaerobic digestion of food waste using an innovative low energy microwave plasma process to split biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) into high value graphitic carbon and renewable hydrogen.

A Jan. 13, 2015 CPI press release, which originated the news item, describes the project and its organization in greater detail,

CPI  as the coordinator of the project is responsible for the technical aspects in the separation of biogas into methane and carbon dioxide, and separating of the graphitic carbon produced from the renewable hydrogen. The infrastructure at CPI allows for the microwave plasma process to be trialled and optimised at pilot production scale, with a future technology roadmap devised for commercial scale manufacturing.

Graphene is one of the most interesting inventions of modern times. Stronger than steel, yet light, the material conducts electricity and heat. It has been used for a wide variety of applications, from strengthening tennis rackets, spray on radiators, to building semiconductors, electric circuits and solar cells.

The sustainable creation of graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waste in provides a sustainable method towards dealing with food waste problem that the European Union faces. It is estimated that 90 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, a figure which could rise to approximately 126 million tonnes by 2020. In the UK alone, food waste equates to a financial loss to business of at least £5 billion per year.

Dr Keith Robson, Director of Formulation and Flexible Manufacturing at CPI said, “PlasCarb will provide an innovative solution to the problems associated with food waste, which is one of the biggest challenges that the European Union faces in the strive towards a low carbon economy.  The project will not only seek to reduce food waste but also use new technological methods to turn it into renewable energy resources which themselves are of economic value, and all within a sustainable manner.”

PlasCarb will utilise quality research and specialist industrial process engineering to optimise the quality and economic value of the Graphene and hydrogen, further enhancing the sustainability of the process life cycle.

Graphitic carbon has been identified as one of Europe’s economically critical raw materials and of strategic performance in the development of future emerging technologies. The global market for graphite, either mined or synthetic is worth over €10 billion per annum. Hydrogen is already used in significant quantities by industry and recognised with great potential as a future transport fuel for a low carbon economy. The ability to produce renewable hydrogen also has added benefits as currently 95% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Moreover, it is currently projected that increasing demand of raw materials from fossil sources will lead to price volatility, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access.

Therefore, the latter stages of the project will be dedicated to the market uptake of the PlasCarb process and the output products, through the development of an economically sustainable business strategy, a financial risk assessment of the project results and a flexible financial model that is able to act as a primary screen of economic viability. Based on this, an economic analysis of the process will be determined. Through the development of a decentralised business model for widespread trans-European implementation, the valorisation of food waste will have the potential to be undertaken for the benefit of local economies and employment. More specifically, three interrelated post project exploitation markets have been defined: food waste management, high value graphite and RH2 sales.

PlasCarb is a 3-year collaborative project, co-funded under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and will further reinforce Europe’s leading position in environmental technologies and innovation in high value Carbon. The consortium is composed of eight partners led by CPI from five European countries, whose complimentary research and industrial expertise will enable the required results to be successfully delivered. The project partners are; The Centre for Process Innovation (UK), GasPlas AS (NO), CNRS (FR), Fraunhofer IBP (DE), Uvasol Ltd (UK), GAP Waste Management (UK), Geonardo Ltd. (HU), Abalonyx AS (NO).

You can find PlasCarb here.

The second announcement can be found in a PlasCarb Jan. 14, 2015 press release announcing the publication of research on heterostructures of graphene ribbons,

Few materials have received as much attention from the scientific world or have raised so many hopes with a view to their potential deployment in new applications as graphene has. This is largely due to its superlative properties: it is the thinnest material in existence, almost transparent, the strongest, the stiffest and at the same time the most strechable, the best thermal conductor, the one with the highest intrinsic charge carrier mobility, plus many more fascinating features. Specifically, its electronic properties can vary enormously through its confinement inside nanostructured systems, for example. That is why ribbons or rows of graphene with nanometric widths are emerging as tremendously interesting electronic components. On the other hand, due to the great variability of electronic properties upon minimal changes in the structure of these nanoribbons, exact control on an atomic level is an indispensable requirement to make the most of all their potential.

The lithographic techniques used in conventional nanotechnology do not yet have such resolution and precision. In the year 2010, however, a way was found to synthesise nanoribbons with atomic precision by means of the so-called molecular self-assembly. Molecules designed for this purpose are deposited onto a surface in such a way that they react with each other and give rise to perfectly specified graphene nanoribbons by means of a highly reproducible process and without any other external mediation than heating to the required temperature. In 2013 a team of scientists from the University of Berkeley and the Centre for Materials Physics (CFM), a mixed CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) and UPV/EHU (University of the Basque Country) centre, extended this very concept to new molecules that were forming wider graphene nanoribbons and therefore with new electronic properties. This same group has now managed to go a step further by creating, through this self-assembly, heterostructures that blend segments of graphene nanoribbons of two different widths.

The forming of heterostructures with different materials has been a concept widely used in electronic engineering and has enabled huge advances to be made in conventional electronics. “We have now managed for the first time to form heterostructures of graphene nanoribbons modulating their width on a molecular level with atomic precision. What is more, their subsequent characterisation by means of scanning tunnelling microscopy and spectroscopy, complemented with first principles theoretical calculations, has shown that it gives rise to a system with very interesting electronic properties which include, for example, the creation of what are known as quantum wells,” pointed out the scientist Dimas de Oteyza, who has participated in this project. This work, the results of which are being published this very week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, therefore constitutes a significant success towards the desired deployment of graphene in commercial electronic applications.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Molecular bandgap engineering of bottom-up synthesized graphene nanoribbon heterojunctions by Yen-Chia Chen, Ting Cao, Chen Chen, Zahra Pedramrazi, Danny Haberer, Dimas G. de Oteyza, Felix R. Fischer, Steven G. Louie, & Michael F. Crommie. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.307 Published online 12 January 2015

This article is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube access.

Agriculture and nano in Ireland and at Stanford University (California)

I have two news items one of which concerns the countries of  Ireland and Northern Ireland and a recent workshop on agriculture and nanotechnology held in Belfast, Northern Ireland . The papers presented at the workshop have now been made available for downloading according to a Jan. 25, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

On January 9, 2014, safefood, the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast, and Teagasc Food Research Centre organized a workshop Nanotechnology in the agri-food industry: Applications, opportunities and challenges. The presentations from this event are now availabled as downloadable pdf files …

According to its hompage, Teagasc “is the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland. Its mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bioeconomy that will underpin profitability, competitiveness and sustainability.”

The full list of presentations and access to them can be found on Nanowerk or on this Teagasc publications page,

Presentations

My next item is also focused on agriculture although not wholly. From a Jan. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

University researchers from two continents have engineered an efficient and environmentally friendly catalyst for the production of molecular hydrogen (H2), a compound used extensively in modern industry to manufacture fertilizer and refine crude oil into gasoline.

The Stanford University School of Engineering news release (dated Jan. 27, 2014) by Tom Abate, which originated the news item, (Note: Links have been removed) describes the work,

Although hydrogen is an abundant element, it is generally not found as the pure gas H2 but is generally bound to oxygen in water (H2O) or to carbon in methane (CH4), the primary component in natural gas. At present, industrial hydrogen is produced from natural gas using a process that consumes a great deal of energy while also releasing carbon into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global carbon emissions.

In an article published today in Nature Chemistry, nanotechnology experts from Stanford Engineering and from Denmark’s Aarhus University explain how to liberate hydrogen from water on an industrial scale by using electrolysis.

In electrolysis, electrical current flows through a metallic electrode immersed in water. This electron flow induces a chemical reaction that breaks the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The electrode serves as a catalyst, a material that can spur one reaction after another without ever being used up. Platinum is the best catalyst for electrolysis. If cost were no object, platinum might be used to produce hydrogen from water today.

But money matters. The world consumes about 55 billion kilograms of hydrogen a year. It now costs about $1 to $2 per kilogram to produce hydrogen from methane. So any competing process, even if it’s greener, must hit that production cost, which rules out electrolysis based on platinum.

In their Nature Chemistry paper, the researchers describe how they re-engineered the atomic structure of a cheap and common industrial material to make it nearly as efficient at electrolysis as platinum – a finding that has the potential to revolutionize industrial hydrogen production.

The project was conceived by Jakob Kibsgaard, a post-doctoral researcher with Thomas Jaramillo, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. Kibsgaard started this project while working with Flemming Besenbacher, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) at Aarhus.

There’s more about about the history of electrolysis and hydrogen production and about how the scientists developed their technique in the news release but this time I want to focus on the issue of scalability,. From the news release,

But in chemical engineering, success in a beaker is only the beginning.

The larger questions were: could this technology scale to the 55 billion kilograms per year global demand for hydrogen, and at what finished cost per kilogram?

Last year, Jaramillo and a dozen co-authors studied four factory-scale production schemes in an article for The Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal of Energy and Environmental Science.

They concluded that it could be feasible to produce hydrogen in factory-scale electrolysis facilities at costs ranging from $1.60 to $10.40 per kilogram – competitive at the low end with current practices based on methane – though some of their assumptions were based on new plant designs and materials.

“There are many pieces of the puzzle still needed to make this work and much effort ahead to realize them,” Jaramillo said. “However, we can get huge returns by moving from carbon-intensive resources to renewable, sustainable technologies to produce the chemicals we need for food and energy.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Building an appropriate active-site motif into a hydrogen-evolution catalyst with thiomolybdate [Mo3S13]2− clusters by Jakob Kibsgaard, Thomas F. Jaramillo, & Flemming Besenbacher. Nature Chemistry (2014) doi:10.1038/nchem.1853 Published online 26 January 2014

This article is behind a paywall.

Disorder engineering turns ‘white’ nanoparticles to ‘black’ nanoparticles for clean energy

Titanium dioxide crystals are white, except when they’re black. According to an Apr. 10, 2013 news item on Nanowerk, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (US) have found a way to change white titanium dioxide crystals to black thereby changing some of their properties,

A unique atomic-scale engineering technique for turning low-efficiency photocatalytic “white” nanoparticles of titanium dioxide into high-efficiency “black” nanoparticles could be the key to clean energy technologies based on hydrogen.

Samuel Mao, a scientist who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and the University of California at Berkeley, leads the development of a technique for engineering disorder into the nanocrystalline structure of the semiconductor titanium dioxide. This turns the naturally white crystals black in color, a sign that the crystals are now able to absorb infrared as well as visible and ultraviolet light. The expanded absorption spectrum substantially improves the efficiency with which black titanium dioxide can use sunlight to split water molecules for the production of hydrogen.

The Apr. 10, 2013 Berkeley Lab news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about how this discovery might have an impact on clean energy efforts,

The promise of hydrogen in batteries or fuels is a clean and renewable source of energy that does not exacerbate global climate change. The challenge is cost-effectively mass-producing it. Despite being the most abundant element in the universe, pure hydrogen is scarce on Earth because hydrogen combines with just about any other type of atom. Using solar energy to split the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen is the ideal way to produce pure hydrogen. This, however, requires an efficient photocatalyst that water won’t corrode. Titanium dioxide can stand up to water but until the work of Mao and his group was only able to absorb ultraviolet light, which accounts for barely ten percent of the energy in sunlight.In his ACS [American Chemical Society]  talk [at the 245th meeting, Apr. 7 – 11, 2013], titled “Disorder Engineering: Turning Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles Black,” Mao described how he developed the concept of “disorder engineering,” and how the introduction of hydrogenated disorders creates mid-band gap energy states above the valence band maximum to enhance hydrogen mobility. His studies have not only yielded a promising new photocatalyst for generating hydrogen, but have also helped dispel some widely held scientific beliefs.

“Our tests have shown that a good semiconductor photocatalyst does not have to be a single crystal with minimal defects and energy levels just beneath the bottom of conduction band,” Mao said.

Characterization studies at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source also helped answer the question of how much of the hydrogen  detected in their experiments comes from the photocatalytic reaction, and how much comes from hydrogen absorbed in the titanium oxide during the hydrogenation synthesis process.

“Our measurements indicate that only a very small amount of hydrogen is absorbed in black titanium dioxide, about 0.05 milligrams, as compared to the 40 milligrams of hydrogen detected during a 100 hour solar-driven hydrogen production experiment,” Mao said.

I must say, this ‘disorder engineering’ sounds much more appealing than some of the other disorders one hears about (e.g. personality disorders).

Hydrogen ‘traffic jams’ and embrittlement

Here’s something about how hydrogen atoms cause metals to become embrittled, from  a Nov. 19, 2012 McGill University (Montréal, Québec) news release,

Hydrogen, the lightest element, can easily dissolve and migrate within metals to make these otherwise ductile materials brittle and substantially more prone to failures.

Since the phenomenon was discovered in 1875, hydrogen embrittlement has been a persistent problem for the design of structural materials in various industries, from battleships to aircraft and nuclear reactors. Despite decades of research, experts have yet to fully understand the physics underlying the problem or to develop a rigorous model for predicting when, where and how hydrogen embrittlement will occur.  As a result, industrial designers must still resort to a trial- and-error approach.

Now, Jun Song, an Assistant Professor in Materials Engineering at McGill University, and Prof. William Curtin, Director of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, have shown that the answer to hydrogen embrittlement may be rooted in how hydrogen modifies material behaviours at the nanoscale.  In their study, published in Nature Materials, Song and Curtin present a new model that can accurately predict the occurrence of hydrogen embrittlement.

Under normal conditions, metals can undergo substantial plastic deformation when subjected to forces. This plasticity stems from the ability of nano-  and micro-sized cracks to generate “dislocations” within the metal – movements of atoms that serve to relieve stress in the material.

“Dislocations can be viewed as vehicles to carry plastic deformation, while the nano- and micro-sized cracks can be viewed as hubs to dispatch those vehicles,” Song explains. “The desirable properties of metals, such as ductility and toughness, rely on the hubs functioning well.  Unfortunately those hubs also attract hydrogen atoms. The way hydrogen atoms embrittle metals is by causing a kind of traffic jam: they crowd around the hub and block all possible routes for vehicle dispatch. This eventually leads to the material breaking down.”

State-of-the-art computer simulations were performed by Song to reveal explicitly how hydrogen atoms move within metals and how they interact with metal atoms. This simulation was followed by rigorous kinetic analysis, to link the nanoscale details with macroscopic experimental conditions.

This model has been applied to predict embrittlement thresholds in a variety of ferritic iron-based steels and produced excellent agreements with experiments.  The findings provide a framework for interpreting experiments and designing next-generation embrittlement-resistant structural materials.

Here’s a citation for the paper and a link,

Atomic mechanism and prediction of hydrogen embrittlement in iron” by Jun Song & W. A. Curtin in Nature Materials (2012) doi:10.1038/nmat3479 (advance online publication Nov.11, 2012)

This article is behind a paywall.

More about bubble chambers

Imagine (or not) my surprise at running across a story about how bubble chambers were developed just a day after discovering The Bubble Chamber blog. I found the story serendipitously when reading the Sam Kean book about the periodic table of elements, The Disappearing Spoon. Here’s my seriously shortened version of the story Kean tells:

A young scientist by the name of Donald Glaser was drinking beer and while staring at the bubbles streaming though it got to thinking about particle physics. (Glaser was a junior faculty member at the nearby University of Michigan in the early 1950s when this took place.) There was a belief amongst physicists of that time that particles might lead to the overthrow of the periodic table of elements as the fundamental map of matter. But, the inability to ‘see’ the particles was holding the physicists back. That night, Glaser, inspired by his beer, decided that bubbles might serve as a means to ‘see’ particles.

In his first attempt to create a bubble chamber, Glaser used beer as the liquid at which he aimed an atomic gun in order to bombard it with particles. The first attempts didn’t work and left a bad smell in the lab so Glaser and a colleague refined the experiment to use liquid hydrogenin place of the beer. This refinement worked so well that Glaser won the Nobel Prize at the age of 33.

Cloud project for London 2012 Olympics includes Umberto Eco?; University of Toronto researchers work on nano nose; Nano safety research centre in Scotland

Shades of the 19th century! One of the teams competing to build a 2012 Olympics tourist attraction for London’s east end has proposed digital clouds. According to the article (Digital cloud plan for city skies) by Jonathan Fildes, online here at BBC News,

The construction would include 120m- (400ft-) tall mesh towers and a series of interconnected plastic bubbles that can be used to display images and data.

The Cloud, as it is known, would also be used [as] an observation deck and park

The idea of displaying images and data on clouds isn’t entirely new,

… the prospect of illuminated messages on the slate of the heavens … most fascinated experts and layman. “Imagine the effect,” speculated the Electrical Review [Dec. 31, 1892], “if a million people saw in gigantic characters across the clouds such words as ‘BEWARE OF PROTECTION’ and “FREE TRADE LEADS TO H–L!”

(The passage is from Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new.) I’m not sure what protection refers to but the reference to free trade still feels fresh.

I always find technology connections to the past quite interesting as similar ideas pop up independently from time to time and I’d be willing to bet the 2012 cloud team has no idea that displaying messages on clouds had been proposed as far back as the 1890s.

The current project has some interesting twists. The team is proposing to fund it with micro-donations from millions of people. From the BBC article,

“It’s really about people coming together to raise the Cloud,” Carlo Ratti, one of the architects behind the design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told BBC News.

“We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m. The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached.”

The size of the structure will evolve depending on the number of contributions, he said.

The cloud will not consume power from the city’s grid.

“Many tall towers have preceded this, but our achievement is the high degree of transparency, the minimal use of material and the vast volume created by the spheres,” said professor Joerg Schleich, the structural engineer behind the towers.

Professor Schleich was responsible for the Olympic Stadium in Munich as well as numerous lightweight towers built to the same design as the Cloud.

The structure would also be used to harvest all the energy it produces according to Professor Ratti.

“It would be a zero power cloud,” he said.

The team in addition to designers, scientists, and engineers includes Umberto Eco, a philosopher, semiotician, novelist, medievalist, and literary critic.

Yes, they have a writer on the team for a truly interdisciplinary approach. Or not. Eco may have lent his name to the project and not been an active participant. Still, I’m much encouraged by Eco’s participation (regardless of the amount or type) in this project as I think writers have, for the most part, been fusty and slow to engage with the changes we’re all experiencing.

At the University of Toronto (U of T), researchers are working on a project that they hope will be of interest to NASA ([US] National Aeronautics and Space Administration). From the news item on Azonano,

Thankfully, there is no failure to launch at U of T’s new electron beam nanolithography facility where researchers are already developing smaller-than-tiny award-winning devices to improve disease diagnoses and enhance technology that impacts fields as varied as space exploration, the environment, health care and information and media technologies.

One of these novel nano-devices, being developed by PhD student Muhammad Alam, is an optical nose that is capable of detecting multiple gases. Alam hopes it will be used by NASA one day.

Alam is working on a hydrogen sensor which can be used to detect the gas. Hydrogen is used in many industries and its use is rising so there is great interest in finding ways to handle it more safely and effectively. As for NASA, sometimes those rockets don’t get launched because they detect a hydrogen leak that didn’t actually happen. The U of T ‘nose’ promises to be more reliable than the current sensors in use.

Scotland is hosting one of the first nanomaterials research centres in the UK. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland officially launched the new centre today (Wednesday, November 11) at Edinburgh Napier’s Craighouse Campus.
She said: “Given the widespread use of nanomaterials in [a] variety of everyday products, it is essential for us to fully understand them and their potential impacts. This centre is one of the first in the UK to bring together nano-science research across human, environment, reproductive health and microbiology to ensure the safe and sustainable ongoing use of nanotechnology.”
Director of the Centre for Nano Safety, Professor Vicki Stone said: “Nanomaterials are used in a diverse range of products from medicines and water purifiers to make-up, food, paints, clothing and electronics. It is therefore essential that we fully understand their longterm impact. We are dedicated to understanding the ongoing health and environmental affects of their use and then helping shape future policy for their development. The launch of this new centre is a huge step forward in this important area of research.”

It’s hard to see these initiatives (I mentioned more in yesterday’s [Nov. 10, 2009] posting) in the UK and Europe and not contrast them harshly with the Canadian scene. There may be large scale public engagement, public awareness, safety initiatives, etc. for nanotechnology in Canada but nobody is giving out any information about it.