Drive to crack hydrogen fuel cell technology powers ahead

Researchers in Ireland have come up with one of the cheapest methods to generate hydrogen yet

The use of hydrogen as a general purpose transport fuel may have taken a step closer given a research announcement at Trinity College Dublin. Scientists at its Crann nanotechnology research centre have discovered a new way to generate hydrogen, an ultra clean fuel that holds promise as the energy source of the future.

Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for producing electricity via a fuel cell. These devices produce a steady stream of electricity so long as they have a supply of fuel, and were used to power all of the space capsules used to orbit the earth and go to the moon during the early days of the space programme. A similar fuel cell device could be used to generate the electricity needed to power an electric car, forklift or bus - so long as the hydrogen was cheap enough.

You can’t beat hydrogen when it comes to finding a clean-tech fuel. When it burns to produce energy the only thing left behind is pure water, no chemicals, no particulates. One handy way of getting the gas is to split water, breaking the chemical bonds that hold H2O together. And think about it - there are no supply issues if water is the fuel stock, it comes down as rain for free or you can dip into the ocean but never run out.

What makes it such a promising transport fuel, the energy it releases when rejoined to produce water, also unfortunately makes it a serious nuisance when it comes to handling and storing it. Hydrogen it tremendously explosive if ignited. Think about the Hindenburg zeppelin, it was full of hydrogen gas. If used in transport it must be secured in a fuel tank that can survive collisions, and special piping and couplings are used to refuel so that hydrogen cannot escape. Current dispensing systems run at between 350 and 700 bar so the pressures involved are considerable.


There is also a slight issue about production - it pretty much takes as much energy to make hydrogen by splitting water as you get back when hydrogen and oxygen are rejoined. Lots of methods are used, for example using “free” solar energy to power electrolysis (using madly expensive solar cells), using electricity to split water, and some industrial processes can produce hydrogen as a byproduct. Volume production is based on steam reforming of natural gas but this is unsustainable due to cost. So cheaper methods are needed if hydrogen is ever to become an important energy source. For this reason researchers all over the world are looking for cheaper ways to produce the stuff in the hopes of making hydrogen a viable fuel.

That is why the Crann announcement is noteworthy. It has developed a novel new way to split water based on electrolysis. Crann principal investigator Prof Mike Lyons is leading the work, which uses iron and nickel oxide to split the water. These metals are very cheap and plentiful and more efficient than the metals used in current electrolysis methods, he says.

The method is currently one of the cheapest hydrogen generators yet developed, something that recently allowed it to achieve "hot article status" in the chemistry journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.

This accolade is given to research that has a particularly high impact. Prof John Boland, the head of Crann described Lyons' method as a "world first" that had the potential to revolutionise hydrogen gas production. The work was funded by a grant of almost €800,000 from Science Foundation Ireland and the hope is it will prove to be money well spent.

Much work would remain however before we would see production cars or motorcycles using cheap hydrogen and fuel cells. The engineering issues have already been cleared up given we already have examples of hydrogen gas used to power cars and buses. BMW, Audi, Fiat, Nissan, Volkswagen, GM, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz all have prototype vehicles and Merc, Mazda and Hyundai vehicles are being used as test cars for the HyNor project in Norway.

HyNor is a concerted effort by the Norwegians to build the fuelling infrastructure needed for hydrogen and get drivers to use it. Norway is in a good position to attempt such a challenge given it can produce hydrogen gas using its plentiful hydropower generating capacity, something that would increase its fuel options when the oil starts to run out.

Basically HyNor is a 580km route running between capital Oslo to the port of Stavanger. The idea got underway in 2003 and the route, along with filling stations opened in 2009. Clearly however it has had a shaky start given Statoil's decision to close its hydrogen fuel stations and Think City, who produced test cars closed, ending its vehicle production and closing another station.

Despite these setbacks, the manufacturers are persisting, hoping to steal a march if anyone does actually begin producing cheap hydrogen fuel. Toyota and Mercedes Benz have both declared plans to roll out production models of electric cars powered by fuel cells. We may not see them on the road next month but if the price of hydrogen is right then count on it for the future.