Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Automobiles Look More Feasible with Nanostructured Storage Material

I have been skeptical of claims that nanotechnology was going to help usher in the hydrogen economy. This skepticism is not without reason.

When it turned out that carbon nanotubes were in fact pretty poor at storing hydrogen and their storage capacity was closer to 1wt% in practicality than the lofty 50wt% storage that some research had claimed, I became somewhat jaded.

But there is a new, shiny knight that is challenging my cynicism. It’s a UK-based company called Cella Energy.

I came to know of them through their recent winning of the Shell Springboard Awards, which earns them £40,000 (approximately US$65,000) and a press release.

Now, while some have waxed poetic about hydrogen fuel cells powering cars of the future, others have whispered that the complete lack of any infrastructure for transporting and delivering hydrogen was a pretty steep obstacle, not to mention the extraordinary cost of isolating hydrogen.

But it is in the former barrier that Cella has offered a solution. It seems they have developed a way of trapping hydrides in a nanoporous polymer, or microbeads, which allows the hydrogen to be stored at low pressure and ambient temperatures.

Just to give you a sense of how difficult it has been to store hydrogen (and imagine this system strapped to your automobile), the pressure needed for storing hydrogen has been typically “700 times atmospheric pressure (700bar or 10,000psi) or super-cooled liquids at -253°C (-423°F).” That could be described as a ticking time bomb traveling with you underneath your car.

With the Cella system since there is no special cooling system required or pressurized storage cylinders the hydrogen storage packaging will look pretty much like a typical fuel tank found on cars today.

Cella has not made any dramatic claims about percentage of hydrogen storage capacity like the carbon nanotubes hullabaloo. At the moment, they say that their materials are performing at “6wt% weight percentage of hydrogen, but Cella is now working with complex hydrides that store hydrogen at up to 20wt%.” According to the company website, this exceeds “the revised 2009 Department of Energy targets to produce hydrogen storage materials that would compete with gasoline.”

This all sounds great, but perhaps what is most intriguing about this technology is that the microbeads can be added to conventional fuels in today’s engines and would lower the emissions of those vehicles “to meet the new EU Euro 6 standards for emissions with minor vehicle modifications.”

Apparently, the nanoporous polymer is cheap to produce and Cella claims to be ready to ramp up production, it has applications for both hydrogen fuels cells cars or if that never gets off the ground it makes a fine fuel additive for reducing emissions. So, what’s not to love?

I’m not really sure, but I am bit troubled by their remarks that £40,000 is going to tip them over the edge and now they can ramp up industrial scale production. I am sure they were just be grateful for the prize money, but if they are sincere I can’t see how that amount does much more than pay their staff a month’s salary.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
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Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
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Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
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