National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) engineer Danny Terlip fills a hydrogen fuel cell Mercedes-Benz crossover at the Department of Energy lab’s facilities. Kansas researchers hope to expand hydrogen fueling by making it less expensive to separate hydrogen from oxygen.
Photo courtesy of NREL

Electrolysis, separating water’s hydrogen from oxygen, is critical to generating fuel for hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, and a Kansas startup hopes to dramatically lower the costs of doing so. Avium LLC, a spinoff from the University of Kansas’ (KU) Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, plans to spend a $750,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop its dual-element matrix (DEM) electrolyzer.

Avium LLC was founded in 2017 by KU doctoral student in chemical engineering, Joe Barforoush and his faculty mentor Kevin Leonard, associate professor of chemical & petroleum engineering. Their goal – find lower-cost materials to support commercial-level electrolysis equipment.

“Joe and I developed new materials to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water using electricity,” Leonard says. “Right now, in California and some places in Europe and in Japan, you can buy (hydrogen-powerd) electric vehicles (EVs)... They have a lot of advantages, including faster charge times and a longer range.”

However, hydrogen fuel stations are rare because transporting the gas is difficult and expensive. Academics and automaker R&D departments have spent decades developing on-site systems that would generate hydrogen by pulling it out of water.

The NSF Phase II Small Business Investment Research (SBIR) grant will enable Avium to build a larger prototype of the DEM electrolyzer and field test it at a working hydrogen station.

“To split water into hydrogen and oxygen, very expensive metals are required – things like platinum, which is very rare and very expensive,” Leonard explains. Avium’s catalyst “works just as well as platinum, but uses elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt.”

The key, he adds, is mixing materials in a matrix. Iron and nickel are poor catalysts compared to platinum, “but if you mix them together in the right proportions, in the right way, they have a synergistic effect on each other. The two metals acting together gives you this improved performance.”

Five positions at Avium will be supported through the NSF grant at KU’s Bioscience & Technology Business Center (BTBC).

“This has been great in terms of both the BTBC facilities we have, but also because it enables such close collaboration with KU,” Leonard says. “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.”

Avium LLC

University of Kansas Bioscience & Technology Business Center (BTBC)

University of Kansas Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis