KU Professor, Doctorate Student receive NSF grant for hydrogen fuel cell research

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) -- Avium LLC will receive a two-year, $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation.

Avium will use the grant to popularize and make it easier to own cars with hydrogen fuel cells, while also making hydrogen production friendlier to the environment.

Avium LLC’s headquarters are located at KU’s Bioscience and Technology Business Center. The startup is developing a Dual Element Matrix (DEM) Water Electrolyzer. The DEM is a ground-breaking device that generates hydrogen from water using electricity at a lower cost. The tool could also be used in glass manufacturing, power-plant turbine cooling, pharmaceutical manufacturing and semiconductor processing.

The startup was founded by KU doctoral student, Joe Barforoush, and his mentor Kevin Leonard, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering.

“Joe and I developed new materials to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water using electricity,” says Leonard. “Right now, in California and some places in Europe and in Japan, you can buy hydrogen-fuel-cell electric vehicles. Instead of being powered by a battery, they’re powered using hydrogen and a fuel cell.”

Leonard also says that some of the advantages of hydrogen fuel cells is that they include faster charge tomes and a longer range. However, the bigger issue is that there are less fueling stations than there are hydrogen cars.

“What we want to do is develop an on-site hydrogen generator for fueling stations for fuel-cell electric vehicles,” says Leonard. “They can essentially just take water and electricity – which is already available there – and generate hydrogen on demand instead of having a truck from a chemical plant.”

The grant will help Avium to build a larger prototype of the DEM water electrolyzer and perform testing at a working hydrogen station. The grant builds on work Barforoush and Leonard performed under a prior NSF award.

“We interviewed over 130 people in the hydrogen industry and people who own hydrogen-fuel=cell cars now in California,” says Barforoush. “People talked about shortages – there was actually a shortage while I was there. I would be at one hydrogen refueling station, and people would say, ‘This is the third station I’ve been to and I’m still not even able to get fuel here.’ There would be huge lines, sometimes with vehicles on the tow-truck beds in line because that’s part of the manufacturer’s deal – free towing if they can’t find fuel.”

Over 95% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels at chemical plants currently. The majority of hydrogen at the fueling stations is trucked in from these plants.

“Hydrogen is a commodity chemical,” says Barforoush. “The hydrogen refueling stations are at the bottom of the supply chain because they have relatively low demand right now. Chemical plants meet everyone else’s demand before supplying the fueling stations, which are kind of just out-of-luck if there happens to be a shortage. Cost-effectively producing hydrogen on-site from electricity and water could eliminate the logistical issues of delivered hydrogen while also allowing for greater utilization of renewable electricity.”

Current electrolyzers that can produce hydrogen from water are too costly because of the materials required by their design. Avium is pioneering to solve this problem.

“Traditionally, in order to split water into hydrogen and oxygen very expensive metal are required – things like platinum, which is very rare and very expensive,” says Leonard. “What we’ve been able to do is design a catalyst that works just as well as platinum, but uses elements such as iron and nickel and cobalt, which are much more abundant elements. It’s a materials advance that we’ve made and now we’re taking those materials putting them into a new device.”

The work to develop the electrolyzer will be held in KU’s west district. A $130,000 sub-award grant will go directly to KU.

“My lab is part of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis,” says Leonard. “Our work under this new grant fits perfectly with the strategic mission of the CEBC – we’re implementing a new environmentally friendly process.”

Under the grant, researchers will make the DEM catalysts and electrodes on an industrial scale. This way the project can be tested in a California station.

Five positions at the startup are being supported by the grant and the technology has the potential to boost the Northeast Kansas economy.

“This has been great in terms of both the BTBC facilities we have, but also because it enables such close collaboration with KU,” says Leonard. “Both NSF projects, the Phase I and Phase II, are joint projects between Avium and my lab at KU. So, we have the ability to have both a laboratory and an incubator space for a startup company in close proximity to the university. This has potential for some great economic impact.”