Lighting the Way to Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Tuesday, December 15 2009

Written by Ken Kingery

MOSCOW, Idaho – Students and faculty at the University of Idaho soon will shine a light on what could be the next evolution of materials used for hydrogen fuel cells.

A really, really big light.

Supported by a three-year, $450,000 grant from the Department of Energy, the group will use the brightest x-ray beams in the western hemisphere to probe the most basic chemical properties of rhodium and ruthenium.

“We’re excited as hell,” said Tom Bitterwolf, professor of chemistry at the University of Idaho, who is leading the team of scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., and Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Ill., as well as his own undergraduate and graduate students. “This study has never been done before. It’s on the outer edge of what is possible.”

Storing hydrogen for use in a fuel cell is not difficult. However, making that storage device light enough for applications such as hydrogen-powered cars is beyond modern science.

According to Bitterwolf, the key to bringing the future into today may rest in the ability to release hydrogen from a class of compounds called aminoboranes: very simple molecules that possess a high density of hydrogen.

One way to release this compound’s hydrogen is with a metal catalyst such as rhodium or ruthenium. In order to understand the reaction between the aminoboranes and these metals at the smallest scales imaginable, Bitterwolf plans to zap them with x-rays created by electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light.

Snapshots of chemical reactions are taken by analyzing the patterns of the x-rays interacting with the sample. But these are no ordinary snapshots. These images can be taken in a matter of a trillionth of a second – a very small period of time in which even light can travel only a single millimeter.

“One of the cool parts of this project is that it requires about a half-a-billion dollar light bulb,” explained Bitterwolf. “So the physics will be done with the Advanced Proton Source at Argonne. But the preparations and analytics will be done in Moscow and at PNNL.”

Making sense of the patterns made by the x-rays demands an enormous amount of computing power and experience using it. For this, Bitterwolf is teaming with long-time colleagues at PNNL who have tremendous expertise in doing the spectral interpretation.

But before the data can be collected at Argonne, just outside of Chicago, and interpreted in Richland, Wash., preparations must be made in Moscow, at University of Idaho labs.

For more than a year, graduate students have been doing preliminary studies to make sure the chemistry happens like it is supposed to. They’ve been preparing the samples, building computer clusters and practicing with the programs used for calculations.

Total preparation is necessary because using the x-ray beam lines at the Argonne lab is no small deal. The machine’s time is so valuable – thousands of dollars per hour – that it runs around the clock.

“It’s a beautiful collaborative project,” said Bitterwolf. “The Department of Energy is providing funding for us to use a national facility and we have two major national laboratories working with the University of Idaho. And it’s really cool chemistry. We’re very happy critters.”
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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit