Fuel cells get the dynamite treatment

Honda FCX

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From the University of Southern California  a parallel for Alfred Nobel’s design of a stable substrate for dynamite (which at the time used unstable nitro-glycerin). This solves the collision problem for automobile mounted fuel cells.

Breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cells

USC chemists develop way to safely store, extract hydrogen

A team of USC scientists has developed a robust, efficient method of using hydrogen as a fuel source.

Hydrogen makes a great fuel because of it can easily be converted to electricity in a fuel cell and because it is carbon free. The downside of hydrogen is that, because it is a gas, it can only be stored in high pressure or cryogenic tanks.

In a vehicle with a tank full of hydrogen, “if you got into a wreck, you’d have a problem,” said Travis Williams, assistant professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College.

A possible solution is to store hydrogen in a safe chemical form. Earlier this year, Williams and his team figured out a way to release hydrogen from an innocuous chemical material — a nitrogen-boron complex, ammonia borane — that can be stored as a stable solid.

Now the team has developed a catalyst system that releases enough hydrogen from its storage in ammonia borane to make it usable as a fuel source. Moreover, the system is air-stable and re-usable, unlike other systems for hydrogen storage on boron and metal hydrides.

The research was published this month in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Ours is the first game in town for reusable, air stabile ammonia borane dehydrogenation,” Williams said, adding that the USC Stevens Institute is in the process of patenting the system.

The system is sufficiently lightweight and efficient to have potential fuel applications ranging from motor-driven cycles to small aircraft, he said.

###

The research was funded by the Hydrocarbon Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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Patrik

Exciting times! 🙂

Hydrogen itself may be carbon free. But all of the sources for hydrogen are not.

Curt

We still need to know what the energy storage density is (by both mass and volume), and how that compares to gasoline or diesel fuel. How does the cost of this storage and the fuel cells compare to battery storage?
Then there is the issue of the method of producing the H2 gas to be stored. How do the economics of hydrolysis using electricity for this system compare to battery electric on a per-kWh basis? Or reformation of natural gas versus CNG engine cars?

As my kids would say….’Oh snap this is huge!’

ShrNfr

Thank God they will not need any electricity to produce that hydrogen. Hydrogen for nothing and your watts are free I guess. We will have a surplus of generation facilities when the EPA forces 8% (wsj figure) of our fleet offline because they can’t put the mandated scrubbers in place fast enough.

H.R.

Fuel cost? Didn’t see how much a block of ammonia borane goes for nowadays.
I’ll be interested to see if this gets beyond the test tube stage.

Ray

“Hydrogen makes a great fuel because of it can easily be converted to electricity in a fuel cell and because it is carbon free.”
Is it?
Most hydrogen is manufactured from natural gas (CH4 + H2O → CO + 3 H2).
The ammonia used to create the salt is manufactured from hydrogen from the above reaction.
The diborane used to create the salt is also manufactured using hydrogen from the above reaction (reaction between hydrogen and liquid sodium).
Not so carbon free me think!

Ron de Haan

The entire scheme is similar to how a Belgians replace a light bulb in a lamp.
First they place a round table right under the lamp.
One Belgian climbs on the table and holds the lamp.
Four other Belgians turn the table.
Do you get the picture?
Next scheme…

Ray

They need to heat the salt in order for the hydrogen to evolve. The efficiency of the system will certainly go down.

CodeTech

We could also have hydrogen bound with carbon at the molecular level, for example:
C8H18
This compound would then react with O2 from the atmosphere, and the end result from combustion would be harmless CO2 and H2O.
According to my calculations, this compound would be liquid at all human-safe temperature ranges, and thus it could be easily stored at fuel stations and in small tanks contained in the vehicle. Since it’s liquid, added safety for transport could be obtained by filling a sturdy metal container with a “foamed rubber” insert that would prevent all of the liquid from spilling out in the event of a tank rupture.
Actually, think about it: safe, economical Hydrogen power, the holy grail of alternative fuel inventors. The magic key formula is C8H18, although in practical use it may be more advantageous to mix anywhere from C4-C12 with varying numbers of H atoms. Since it’s liquid, various other compounds could be blended in to alter the behavior of this liquid fuel to better suit warmer or colder conditions.
I should patent this.

Scott Covert

I have a great idea, let’s burn petrolium. We have lots more of that than ammonia borane and all you need to do is distill and filter it!

Kasuha

Will it be cheaper than oil?

Retired Engineer

Had we not had a half dozen ‘breakthoughs’ in hydrogen storage already, this could be interesting. Issues of density, cost, life cycle, etc. still remain. Ivory tower scientists rarely look at the real world.
Nuclear reactors can produce hydrogen, as the Japanese learned the hard way, but I don’t suppose we’ll have many of them in the future. Cheap hydrogen? Sure, like cheap ethanol, with massive taxpayer subsidy.
As even the AGW fanatics at Popular Science noted a few isues back, there still is nothing that can compete with good old liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel on a practical basis.

Don K

Of course isolating Hydrogen releases CO2 — using current technology. But if you believe that CO2 is a problem — and many people do rightly or wrongly — it is a lot easier to sequester CO2 from a fixed source than from an auto, boat, or aircraft engine. The waste product of hydrogen based power is water. And surely there is some possibility of making hydrogen with solar, fussion, fusion or geothermal power. Heck, maybe large numbers of windmills will be economically viable if they drive a hydrogen plant. (Wouldn’t be my bet, but it’s not impossible).

lol!

Oh, you guys. You’re just so negative!

At best, hydrogen as a fuel source is only a storage battery. The electricity required to get it from water by electrolysis still has to be produced by conventional means. Such as coal, natural gas, petroleum, or nuclear. So, unless someone can figure out a clean way to produce hydrogen that doesn’t use more energy to make it than you can get back by burning it as fuel, there is no net gain for the environment.

Cary

Whatever happened to Billings’ technology for his hydrogen powered cars? As I recall it was something similar, using stable hydrogen pellets. That was years ago – late 70’s early 80’s?

Jason Joice

So someone explain to me how hydrogen is so much more dangerous that a gas tank full of gasoline or a CNG car’s tank full of methane?? I don’t get this solution to a non-problem. In a collision, all of these fuels need to be released from their tank, they need oxygen in the proper ratio (somewhere between the UEL and the LEL) and they need an ignition source. If those conditions are met, they are all extremely dangerous.

John in L du B

Looks like a nice technolgy advance. However, it doesn’t make much difference for CO2. The bulk of H2 now is produced by steam reforming of natural gas, which, by my estimate (assuming natural gas is mostly methane) results in about 5.5 ton of CO2 for every ton of hydrogen from the reaction alone, which, if you believe Wiki, would amount to at least 600 million tons CO2 in 2004 alone. However, the first step of the reaction, which produces CO and H2 is strongly endothermic while the final stage conversion of CO to CO2 is only weakly exothermic. It’s my understanding that the required energy usually comes from the combustion of natural gas, which results in still more CO2.
However, this may be a sensible way to use wind power. Generate hydrogen from wind power by hydrolysis. Accumulate it and use it to generate electricity from fuel cells during peak hours or during periods of calm winds. Not sure what efficiencies can be achieved now with hydrolysis.

Doc Stephens

The ultimate source of hydrogen is from hydrolysis. The oceans, lakes, and groundwater are the reusable and inexaustible natural supply. The energy source to split the water is geothermal, solar, wind, and even off-peak nuclear power among many others. Not only will this give us all the energy we need in a convenient form, but we’ll get the water as the combustion product.
Hydrogen serves as a convenient energy storage material that allows for the continued use of internal combustion technology. Even natural gas power plants could use hydrogen or even a methane-hydrogen mixture with very little modification.
We need to quit burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum for a varieity of reasons–the most important of which is the need for this natural resource for making stuff.
Hydrogen as a fuel, once safely storable, is an important fuel for our future that would allow for the continued use of internal combustion engines while fuel cell and batter technology continues to develop.

RHS

The advantage of a gas vs. liquid in an accident is, the gas will explode ONCE. A liquid will not only combust, but while burning will soak into things like a car seat, tires, any permeable surface which prolongs the danger of a burning gas.
I think most people would take an explosion which knocks them silly over the chance of burning to death…

Mooloo

So someone explain to me how hydrogen is so much more dangerous that a gas tank full of gasoline or a CNG car’s tank full of methane??
Hydrogen gas is immensely more explosive than methane when used in cars.
It is a much smaller molecule is most of the reason. It has to be stored at much higher pressure as a result,and disperses much more quickly anyway. So in a crash will expand very quickly, providing a highly explosive mix of H2 and O2.
Hydrogen even provides quite a satisfying explosion in a test-tube, whereas bunsen burners show how unexplosive methane is, burning with quite a steady flame (H2 would burn too fast to do this).
Hydrogen itself may be carbon free. But all of the sources for hydrogen are not.
Hydrogen is a fairly simply produced from electrolysis of water, so any produced from nuclear or hydroelectric is totally carbon free.
Industry produces it from hydrocarbons for a variety of reasons — cheapness of the material (which is often the surplus to fuel production), ability to produce on site an amount that would be highly dangerous to store (think zeppelin explosions) and the need to produce it hot. The situation is quite different.
It would be mental to use petrol to produce H2 when we could just burn the petrol in the first place. I think the scientists have thought this through just a little bit.

Steve R

Say we could fill up on cheap environmentally friendly H2. Why bother with the fuel cell? Why not use the tried and true internal combustion engine?

Janice The American Elder

Jason Joice M.D. says: “So someone explain to me how hydrogen is so much more dangerous that a gas tank full of gasoline or a CNG car’s tank full of methane??”
When gasoline or methane burn, you can see the flame. When hydrogen burns, you cannot see the flame.
Gasoline and methane are fairly large molecules, and thus are relatively easy to contain. Hydrogen is very very small, and difficult to contain. It is possible that a tank to contain hydrogen would have to be very thick-walled (in comparison to a gasoline tank) just to slow down the leak rate.

DirkH

Doc Stephens says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm
“We need to quit burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum for a varieity of reasons–the most important of which is the need for this natural resource for making stuff.”
The peak oilers and greens also constantly say this but that doesn’t make it true. When you have enough energy but you ran out of hydrocarbons for “making stuff”, you can very easily expend some plant oil for “making stuff” or just synthesize hydrocarbons from scratch.

Nuke

Scott Covert says:
August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm
I have a great idea, let’s burn petrolium. We have lots more of that than ammonia borane and all you need to do is distill and filter it!

Can’t do it. The green cult believes in peak oil and to prove it’s real they are doing everything they can to make it happen. No drilling, no refining, no pipelines.
Viola! Peak Oil is here.

Kasuha says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm
Will it be cheaper than oil?

No, because we won’t be allowed to drill for oil, refine it, make it from coal, or anything except food stock.

LarryD

IEEE invited paper (2006) “Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense”
The Myth of the Hydrogen Economy
“But there is one basic flaw which will never be overcome. Free hydrogen is not an energy source; it is rather an energy carrier. Free hydrogen does not exist on this planet, so to derive free hydrogen we must break the hydrogen bond in molecules. Basic chemistry tells us that it requires more energy to break a hydrogen bond than to form one. This is due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and there is no getting around it. We are working on catalysts which will help to lower the energy necessary to generate free hydrogen, but there will always be an energy loss, and the catalysts themselves will become terribly expensive if manufactured on a scale to match current transportation energy requirements.”

DirkH

Cary says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm
“Whatever happened to Billings’ technology for his hydrogen powered cars? As I recall it was something similar, using stable hydrogen pellets.”
Very often, these technologies that try to store H2 within some other solid or liquid stuff run into practical problems because they can’t release as much H2 as is needed at any given moment. Driving a car requires changing amounts of fuel all the time; or at least at critical moments; how would you control the amount of H2 you set free via the catalyst? That’s what the researchers and inventors are silent about.

D. J. Hawkins

Jason Joice M.D. says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm
So someone explain to me how hydrogen is so much more dangerous that a gas tank full of gasoline or a CNG car’s tank full of methane?? I don’t get this solution to a non-problem. In a collision, all of these fuels need to be released from their tank, they need oxygen in the proper ratio (somewhere between the UEL and the LEL) and they need an ignition source. If those conditions are met, they are all extremely dangerous.

The difference is that CNG and gasoline when released do not convert immediately and completely to the vapor or gaseous phase. Gasoline in particular has a vapor density about 4 times that of air, so it isn’t easy to get a well-mixed volume with an open pool. In fact, if you drop a lighted match onto an unconfined pool of gasoline it will usually go out. A tank of hydrogen is going to be at about 6,000 psi to get any decent energy density. Assuming it doesn’t become a rocket in the accident, if it’s breached you’re going to have a well mixed volume looking for an ignition source right from the get-go. As for LEL and UEL, gasoline is 1.4%-7.6%, H2 is 4%-75%.

Another Gareth

A company called Cella Energy were in the news in the UK earlier this year talking about something similar. I believe their system works by heating ammonia-borane hydride beads to release the hydrogen.
A link to a news article: UK researchers invent ‘artificial petrol’ costing 19p per litre
“UK researchers are developing a synthetic petrol that could cost as little as 19p per litre. The future fuel, developed by Cella Energy in Didcot, ditches hydrocarbons for the cleaner, more abundant element hydrogen.
It could be a fabulously efficient source of energy — hydrogen has a much higher amount of potential energy than petrol in any given weight. It’s notoriously difficult to deal with, however, as it has an unhelpful tendency to explode once it’s mixed with oxygen. Cella says it’s found a solution that will allow motorists to pour a hydrogen-based fuel directly into a car’s standard fuel tank without risk of a Hindenburg-style meltdown at the pumps.
The company plans to store the hydrogen, in the form of ammonia-borane hydride, safely inside nanobeads with a porous polymer coating. The nanobeads — think of them as tiny M&Ms with hydrogen nuts inside — protect the volatile chemical from the elements, but their minuscule size and composition mean they behave as a fluid, so they can be transported in much the same way as petrol.”

Tom_R

>> Mooloo says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:50 pm
Hydrogen even provides quite a satisfying explosion in a test-tube, whereas bunsen burners show how unexplosive methane is, burning with quite a steady flame (H2 would burn too fast to do this). <<
A bunsen burner doesn't explode because it has a constant limited flow. You can take a test tube and add water and metallic calcium and get a nice steady flame when you light it.

Tom_R

>> CodeTech says:
August 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm <<
ROFLMAO

@LarryD
Agreed. However with all these useless windfarms, rather than supplying electricity to the grid, maybe we could get them to produce hydrogen from electrolysis of water when the wind is blowing.

Doc Stephens says:
August 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm
Yes ideed!
Get real, hydroogen is the best possibility we have as an energy bearer once hydrocarbons runs out.
It can easily be produced by those “pesky” unreliable solar panels and (vertical) windmills wherever (salty) water is present (oceans..), stored as compressed gas, and transported directly to your car or home where you turn it back to electricity you can use, via fuel cells (reverse electrolysis).
As to the danger of this highly explovsive gas, remember that hydrogen gas, once released into the atmosphere will rise at a rate of more than 30 mph, making any explovsive heat at ground level very shortlived, as opposed to a ruptured gasoline fuel tank spilling it’s guts on the ground around your car igniting…
Yes, i know prodcution of hydrogen through electrolysis today is costing more energy than you will get back, it still will be a good way to store the unreliable energy we can get out of solar, wind and tidal powerplants. Much better than having a coal plant on standby, anyway.
And no, i seriously don’t believe in the co2 hype!! I’m more concerned about what happens when we run out of fuel… 😉

Tom_R

>> Mark Wilson says:
August 30, 2011 at 1:33 pm
Hydrogen itself may be carbon free. But all of the sources for hydrogen are not. <<
What's the problem? We just need to move everyone to Jupiter. CO2-haters first.

Rhoda Ramirez

Back when Den Beste was still blogging I did some research into hydorgen and hydrogen cars and the one thing that I remember from that is the HEAT that combusting hydrogen put out. Used in stationary applications like hosptials or apartment complexes, that heat could be recovered and used for water heating; but the heat coming from cars? Talk about a urban heat island effect.

Curiousgeorge

Look up Hydrogen Embrittlement, and then come tell me how great Hydrogen is.

pk

one of the things about hydrogen explosions is that they are very fast.
another is that a great deal of water is liberated with a great deal of heat. this comes off as steam and thats the explosive element.
the dirty little secret is that the steam touches the walls of the container and then recondenses very rapidly.
this push pull can cause a lot of damage.
if it happens in an internal combustion engine then the cylinder walls are already hot enough to stop the condensing feature and the steam goes out of the exhaust.
then you have the problems of the hydrogen wanting to combine with the lube oil, the material that the o rings are made of (seals)………
the same thing as when the state of california forced a change in the formula for diesel fuel for on highway vehicles. lots of expensive engines rolling to a stop before the first tank full was used.
C

Scott Covert

Liquid or gaseous hydrogen is not safe. Hydrogen has a very wide flamability range, this means the fuel to air mixture can be very rich or very lean and still cause Fuel-Air-Explosion weapon type shock waves. Someone mentioned the preferability of a bang over burning to death. Burning to death must be horrible but the kinds of explosions possible with hydrogen gas are a bit more devastating. One of those hydrogen busses in London could have a catastrophic failure of their fuel tank and literally kill hundreds of drivers in adjacent lanes and buildings. Now think about the possibility of a chain reaction on the L.A. freeway if everyone was running hydrogen. Look at the explosions at Fukushima, that scale of blast could be produced by one full fuel tank with a stress fracture.
Hydrogen in a carrier like this above would make it much safer but the carrier needs to be able to liberate hydrogen rapidly when accelerating. If it can’t, there will be a lot of smashed smart car tailgates on the freeway onramps.

Nuke

Hydrogen fuel cells have a lot of barriers to overcome, but have much greater potential as an energy source than chemical batteries.

just as an example of what is possible.
But then again i wonder just what will happen if one million of these release water wapor over, let”s say, L.A. every day…

wsbriggs

Since CO2 is a non-problem, it is amusing to see the contortions done to try to make H2 work in vehicles.
H2 is a delightful tool for silver soldering, just a little dabbing to take away the residual water condensation.
I think Tom_R (3:28pm) has the right idea. We’ll let them pilot the scoopships which dive into the atmosphere to capture the H2 we need back here on Earth. Gee, after it’s compressed, we just throw it downhill to Earth in the Sun’s gravity well. o_O <- loved Anthony's "mindblown" smiley.

LazyTeenager

for Alfred Nobel’s design of a stable substrate for dynamite (which at the time used unstable nitro-glycerin). This solves the collision problem for automobile mounted fuel cells.
———-
Confused explanation. Dynamite was the product of stabilizing nitroglycerin, which had been previously used as a liquid, on an kieselguhr substrate.

G. Karst

Look, hydrogen itself is only a heat storage & transport medium. Its practical use depends on two things:
– a safe and effective storage system
– a cheap and abundant energy supply
Petroleum can supply H2 during transition and as a backup, but H2 must ultimately be obtained from electrolysis of H2O, in order to claim a hydrogen powered world. Hence the requirement for cheap (efficiency is irrelevant) electrical power. Whether this electrical energy comes from fission, fusion (cold or hot), wind, hydro, solar, is irrelevant, provided it’s delivered cost is comparable to fossil fuel.
This would effectively mean our transport industry and cars would be powered by the grid, even though they still have fuel tanks. So whatever powers your grid, powers your vehicles.
This all is a peak oil issue, as carbon reduction should not be the motivation behind the switch. GK

JimBob

I think some folks need to study up on the whole “conservation of energy” thing. Sure, you can generate hydrogen using electrolysis powered by windmills or solar panels, but not on a scale to use as a replacement for gasoline. You have to put more energy into the process than you get back in hydrogen.
Looking at a few quick numbers, there are around 2.5 kW of energy in a US gallon of gasoline. The US used about 126,773,388,000 gallons of gas in 2009 (quick internet search). The entire US power generation system comes up a few orders of magnitude shy of replacing our annual gasoline usage. The clean-energy-for-hydrogen thing falls apart quickly when you figure out how little power generation capacity we have to spare for running electrolysis machines.

gman

And then theres Stanley Meyers dune buggy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFIlXaABU54

gman
Jason Joice

http://www.evworld.com/article.cfm?storyid=482
Like I said: a solution to a non-problem.

Paul

Jason Joice M.D.
So someone explain to me how hydrogen is so much more dangerous that a gas tank full of gasoline or a CNG car’s tank full of methane?? I don’t get this solution to a non-problem. In a collision, all of these fuels need to be released from their tank, they need oxygen in the proper ratio (somewhere between the UEL and the LEL) and they need an ignition source. If those conditions are met, they are all extremely dangerous.

I’m not sure anyone can, It’s probably one of those things that Everybody knows but no one ever checked after all the Hindenberg that was painted with what was basically thermite had Hydrogen inside it! Personally I’d expect that diatomic hydrogen is so buoyant in the atmosphere that even burning it poses much less of a hazard than expected. Maybe we should get Adam and Jamie on the case.