Discovery gives hydrogen fuel cell research a big boost

A break-through discovery in fuel cell technology could provide a major turning point for attempts to make a commercially viable vehicle powered by hydrogen, experts have said.

Using nanoporous materials, which have tiny pores one-hundred-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper, a team of scientists from universities in Newcastle and Liverpool have now found a safe way of storing and releasing hydrogen to produce energy in a study partially funded by the Carbon Trust.

Hydrogen fuel cells have been championed as the future of clean automotive technology (see related story), and critics that claimed that cars hydrogen-fuelled vehicles would never go fast enough to be attractive to consumers were recently proved wrong when BMW’s new H2R model broke world records by travelling at 300mph (see related story).

The one problem that has been preventing the commercial progression of these fuel cells has been storing the hydrogen effectively, as gas contains less energy in a given litre than liquid petrol. A hydrogen tank would need to be 3,000 times bigger than a regular petrol tank in order to provide the vehicle with an equal amount of energy.

However, this new research has shown that by combining a number of synthetic materials containing nickel, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in a lattice structure containing holes over a millionth of a millimetre in size, the hydrogen can be trapped and safely stored. Moreover, this construction can absorb over 1,000 times its own volume in hydrogen.

According to Professor Mark Thomas of Newcastle University’s Northern Carbon Research Laboratories and a member of the team, this is proof that hydrogen can be trapped in porous materials and released when required, providing the potential to power cars or generate power.

“Although hydrogen-powered cars are likely to be decades away, our discovery brings this concept a step towards becoming reality,” he said. “Now that we have a mechanism that works, we can go on to design and build better porous framework materials for storing hydrogen, which may also be useful in industries that use gas separation techniques.”

The material works much like a cat flap, another team member Professor Matt Rosseinsky stated, with the structure closing firmly shut behind the hydrogen molecule once it had entered one of the channels.

“The important point is that the hydrogen is loaded into the materials at high pressure but stored in them at a much lower pressure – a unique behaviour,” he added.

By Jane Kettle

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie