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Ammonia electrolysis and fuel cell research

Emily Bacha April 22, 2008

Dr. Gerardine Botte founded the Electrochemical Engineering Research Laboratory (EERL), in 2003 with a goal of bringing together students and faculty to apply chemical engineering principles to the solving of electrochemical technology problems. EERL's focus turned to fuel cells after she attended a conference which alerted her to the challenges facing that technology.

One of the most important challenges limiting the commercialization of fuel cells is not the intricate design of the cell or the cost of that design, but rather the source of fuel and its cost. Part of the promise of fuel cells is that they can be powered by hydrogen which is a non-polluting fuel source. However, hydrogen can be extremely costly to produce. Botte knew that if she could solve the problems associated with the production, storage, and ransportation of hydrogen (as well as its cost), she could develop a successful and marketable hydrogen fuel cell.

She began experimenting with and modeling various processes by which large amounts of hydrogen could be efficiently produced. Botte recognized early on that the promise of fuel cell technology lay in the resources needed to produce the energy. After making thermodynamic calculations and modeling the process, Botte realized that by electrolyzing ammonia (NH3), she could easily derive nitrogen and hydrogen at a low operating temperature (thus reducing the need to use power to produce power). In addition, by using ammonia that is contained in waste water (which is readily available and currently viewed as a "waste"); she could maintain fresh water resources. Finally, her process allows for the creation of hydrogen "on demand" and eliminates the need for hydrogen storage. Instead, ammonia (in the form of waste water) is handled using existing infrastructure for distribution and storage.



The advantages of Botte's ammonia technology discoveries mean that fuel cell technology finally has the potential to meet its promise. The products of the reaction used to produce hydrogen pose no threat to the environment: the nitrogen byproduct can be released into the air as it is the most common element in earth's atmosphere and the hydrogen can be combined with oxygen to power the fuel cell, which releases clean water while it runs. The process also creates a productive use for waste water.

In addition, the ammonia electrolysis process can be operated by renewable energy sources such as solar power. This is demonstrated in the EERL by a functional model. The light from overhead lamps – representative of the sun – provides power to solar panels which, in turn, supply the power needed to operate the ammonia electrolysis technology. A demonstration of the distribution and storage of ammonia is shown through the use of a functional shoe-sized" car model. Hydrogen is produced on demand from a container of ammonia, which is attached to a miniature fuel cell.

The result of this technology is that fuel cells now have the potential to be cost-effective and move closer to wide-spread commercial use. Using the ammonia electrolysis technology, hydrogen can be produced for less than $2 per kilogram versus other methods where hydrogen costs at least $8 per kilogram. For purposes of comparison, one kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent in energy
content to one gallon of gasoline.


The real-life applications of ammonia electrolysis will soon be realized by those outside the EERL. American Hydrogen, a subsidiary of American Security Resources, Corp., bought the exclusive rights to Botte's technology in August 2007. In February 2008, American Hydrogen announced its plans to commercialize the technology and to manufacture fuel cells that can be used to provide electricity
for homes and offices.

The success of EERL is due to the leadership of Dr. Gerardine Botte and to Ohio University undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctorate students that have participated in this research. The EERL will be able to build on its success thanks to the $600,000 that American Hydrogen pledged for additional research, development, and staff support as part of its licensing agreement. Botte hopes to use the funding to enhance previous research, to develop new electrochemical technologies that will solve problems facing our nation and world, and to draw international attention and acclamation to Ohio University and the work of the Electrochemical Engineering Research Lab.

For photos of the EERL, click here.

To view videos about this research, see "A Fuel of the Future" and "A Place to Test Tomorrow's Fuels."