Lasers and 3D-Printing Process Fabricates a Hydrogen-Producing Electrolyzer

A new 3D-printing method that uses lasers to build a device that can provide hydrogen to power mobile devices, automobiles.

Forget batteries to power your mobile phone or electric vehicle—researchers have come up with a laser-based 3D-printing process that can create a new fuel source with unprecedented storage for these and other uses.

Researchers at Clemson University have developed a new technique that involves rapid-laser processing to create what are called “protonic ceramic electrolyzer stacks” that convert electricity to hydrogen as a way of storing energy.

Jianhua “Joshua” Tong, left, and Ph.D. student Shenglong Mu work in their lab at Clemson University, where they are developing a new technology that combines 3D printing and laser processing. (Image source: Clemson University)

A team led by Jianhua “Joshua” Tong, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, created the process, which they said would reduce the cost and time currently needed to manufacture electrolyzers. These ceramic-based devices can be used to store solar and wind energy or as a car fuel source, he said in a Clemson news release. “Our success will mean we can provide sustainable, clean energy,” Tong said. “That is the fantastic part. We are taking 3D printing to the next level.”

Tong worked together to design the process with three other faculty members in Clemson’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, including Hai Xiao, Kyle Brinkman and Fei Peng.

The technique developed by Tong and his team focuses on ceramics, the manufacturing of which typically needs sintering in a furnace at high temperatures for several hours. An electrolyzer is comprised of four different types of ceramics, which historically has made manufacturing of these types of fuel sources time-consuming and costly.

Eliminate the Furnace

The Clemson team solved the problem with a unique 3D-printing laser process that simultaneously puts down a layer of ceramic and sinters it using a laser at the same time, Tong said. This eliminates not only the need for a furnace to fabricate the electrolyzer, but also the time typically needed for the process, he said.

Researchers compared the way the process fabricates an electrolyzer made out of four different types of ceramics without using a furnace to baking a cake with many layers, each one with a different flavor.

Not only does the new process bode well for the fabrication of these alternative fuel sources, it also can be applied to the fabrication of other type of ceramic products, including high-density batteries for smartphones that could hold unprecedented charge—even for several days, Tong said.

Moreover, the 3D-printing aspect of the technique also has advantages for the manufacturing of various products, simplifying the process because designs can be sent via email for fabrication in mere hours on the site where an item is needed, he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


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