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NSRRC Dives in Green Hydrogen Research and Roots for Nation’s Battle for Net Zero
Trivalent copper
The National Synchrotron Radiation Research Center (NSRRC), funded by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), collaborated on a green hydrogen research for three years, which was published and featured in Nature Communication on February 1st. This research team, consisted of Dr. Yan-Gu Lin of NSRRC, and scientists from the National Yang Ming Chiai Tung University in Taiwan, and Max Planck Institutes in Germany. Using Taiwan Photon Source, Taiwan Light Source as well as Taiwan beamlines at SPring-8 in Japan, the team, being the first in the world, discovered that trivalent copper could be successfully induced from “cuprous oxide catalyst” during electrochemical water splitting reaction. Trivalent copper, deemed as the key, could facilitate the development of low-cost and high-effectiveness hydrogen energy.

In March 2022, the National Development Council released the “Taiwan's Pathway to Net-Zero Emissions in 2050”; in December, it further set 2023 reduction targets and announced “12 Key Strategies” action plan. Accordingly, the NSTC has taken early action and planned to invest NT$11.9 billion in 2023 for promoting hydrogen power generation, natural carbon sinks, carbon capture, utilization and storage, etc. Being part of the global community, Taiwan has demonstrated the determination to join the international efforts to achieve net zero emissions. Hydrogen energy is characterized by its long-term storage, easiness for dispatch, and lack of greenhouse gases emitted during power generation. Hence, hydrogen, one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, also known as “the fuel of the future,” has become the focus of global attention.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), until October 2022, there were nearly 2,000 projects on hydrogen energy development internationally. For example, Germany announced its investment of 12.4 billion euros in hydrogen energy R&D by 2026, along with 21.3 billion euros in promoting the use of hydrogen energy. Australia is planning the world's largest electrolysis plant by building a 250MW hydrogen electrolyzer to provide fuel for a 200MW hydrogen power plant. The United Arab Emirates, a major oil producing country, also develops renewable energy and hydrogen energy, with the goal set to share 25% of the global hydrogen export market in 2030. United States subsidize the hydrogen energy generation with a substantial amount of budget; hydrogen energy is timetabled to fall below US$2 per kilogram in 2030.

Currently, hydrogen is mostly obtained from fossil fuels; it is called "grey hydrogen," which emits large greenhouse gases. On the other hand, so-called “green hydrogen” is generated by renewable energy, and is environmental friendly. However, the process for producing green hydrogen requires catalysts for electrolyzers and extremely high voltage to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. In addition to high energy consumption, the most widely used commercial catalysts, platinum and iridium, are expensive, making water electrolysis is not cost-effectiveness.

As a pioneering move, the team injected hydrogen atoms into the copper-based oxide catalyst, and adjusted its atomic and electronic structures. To this end, the copper-based catalyst could steadily function for over 100 consecutive hours under low voltage. The catalyst lifetime was extended over 10 times. According to the research results, not only the voltage was able to be greatly reduced for saving energy consumption in the electrolysis process, but also the cost of the catalyst could be significantly cut since the copper-based oxide catalyst was 10,000 times cheaper than the commercial iridium catalyst. The high-efficiency and low-cost is the key to lead popularization and commercialization of hydrogen energy; "hydrogen economy" will then be all the rage.

In order to further unlock the hidden secrets behind the high effectiveness, Dr. Lin revealed that the high activity of the cuprous oxide catalyst came from trivalent copper, by using the NSRRC beamlines in Taiwan and at the SPring-8 in Japan, together with the on site analysis technique developed by his team. Trivalent copper has been given considerable attention in the field of high-temperature superconductivity; however, it was observed in the field of electrochemical catalysis for the first time. This was indeed a revolutionary new finding.

Currently, the government is aiming for net zero emissions and taking the lead in developing green energy by integrating all levels of government, incorporating public and private sectors, and collaborating with other countries. With the long-term support of the NSTC, the NSRRC has been devoted to green energy research, including solar power, lithium-ion batteries, and green hydrogen. NSRRC will continue to align itself with the government’s goal and assist in shaping Taiwan into a model country with net-zero technologies.