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UT-Led Hydrogen Research Earns $2 Million Grant

xEnergy Lines as Part of Power Grid
Better integration of new sources of power, such as from wind turbines, into the grid is one of the benefits of fuel cells. By increasing storage, more power can be on hand for when need spikes.
Photo by American Public Power Association

UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are part of a team whose breakthrough in fuel cell and hydrogen technology recently was awarded $2 million in funding from the US Department of Energy.

Hydrogen is increasingly recognized as a potential energy carrier with growing applications in vehicles, grid modernization, energy storage, fuel production, metal refining, and other areas.

Although great strides have been made in recent years in the technology of fuel cells and electrolyzers—the component that breaks water into gas—widespread implementation of hydrogen-generating components has been limited by cost, and they remain more expensive than natural gas.

That’s where the new project comes into play.

Feng Zhang
Feng Zhang

“Almost all electrolyzers use catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, with the hydrogen then serving as a fuel source for a fuel cell or other process,” said project leader Feng-Yuan Zhang, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering who is located at UT Space Institute. “What we are doing is using a new type of thin electrodes that are much more efficient in that conversion, reducing costs.”

Central to the process are proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer cells. The electrodes and cell design are key to splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen following electrolysis.

The proposed work, which builds on previous research done in Zhang’s lab, will more efficiently convert the water into its constituent gases.

This new concept will make use of advanced manufacturing technology to design specifically chosen patterns for the layer, allowing hydrogen to be produced more efficiently than through conventional electrolysis and at a purer level than through natural gas reformation.

Matthew Mench
Matthew Mench

“Achieving low-cost hydrogen generation from electrolysis is a critical component to provide efficient energy storage from the growing renewable energy sources on the grid, which do not produce power in concert with demand,” said MABE Department Head Matthew Mench, co-principal investigator on the project. “Adoption of energy storage via electrolysis, while providing hydrogen for automotive or other applications, can offer a smarter path forward that can be scaled as renewables and fuel cell use increase.”

The project was one of 28 hydrogen-focused initiatives selected by the DOE with a total of $38 million in funding across all projects, highlighting the importance of the gas to the nation.

“As an energy carrier, hydrogen can help unite all of our nation’s abundant fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy resources,” said DOE Secretary Rick Perry. “It is part of the department’s diverse energy portfolio focused on providing affordable, reliable energy to American families and businesses.”

Other member institutions with UT and ORNL are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Proton On Site Inc., and the University of Connecticut.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,