Feb 192011
 
Elements of the hydrogen economy
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A new method for “recycling” hydrogen-containing fuel materials could open the door to economically viable

In an article appearing in Angewandte Chemie, Los Alamos National Laboratory and University of Alabama researchers working within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Chemical Hydrogen Storage Center of Excellence describe a significant advance in hydrogen storage science.

Hydrogen is in many ways an ideal fuel for transportation. It is abundant and can be used to run a fuel cell, which is much more efficient than internal combustion engines. Its use in a fuel cell also eliminates the formation of gaseous byproducts that are detrimental to the environment.

For use in transportation, a fuel ideally should be lightweight to maintain overall fuel efficiency and pack a high energy content into a small volume. Unfortunately, under normal conditions, pure hydrogen has a low energy density per unit volume, presenting technical challenges for its use in vehicles capable of travelling 300 miles or more on a single fuel tank—a benchmark target set by DOE.

Consequently, until now, the universe’s lightest element has been considered by some as a lightweight in terms of being a viable transportation fuel.

In order to overcome some of the energy density issues associated with pure hydrogen, work within the Chemical Hydrogen Storage Center of Excellence has focused on using a class of materials known as chemical hydrides. Hydrogen can be released from these materials and potentially used to run a fuel cell. These compounds can be thought of as “chemical fuel tanks” because of their hydrogen storage capacity.

Ammonia borane is an attractive example of a chemical hydride because its hydrogen storage capacity approaches a whopping 20 percent by weight. The chief drawback of ammonia borane, however, has been the lack of energy-efficient methods to reintroduce hydrogen back into the spent fuel once it has been released. In other words, until recently, after hydrogen release, ammonia borane couldn’t be adequately recycled.

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