R&D Advances in Hydrogen Fuel Storage Technology Promise Green Benefits

By George Backwell at September 11, 2011 05:18
Filed Under: Research & Development

Hydrogen is an excellent, carbon free, water-bound (and  thus cheap) fuel-source easily convertible to electricity through fuel cells, ideal as a power source for workboats, barges and recreational craft. But storage of the gas is a problem.

In gas form hydrogen has to be stored either at high pressure or else at a very low temperature. Researchers seek a more convenient, safer alternative storage solution for this ideal fuel; one, already proven effective, is to store the hydrogen in chemical form and two developments in the field are highlighted here.

Experimental Barge Ross Barlow: Photo credit – Roger Kidd


Hydrogen-fuelled Barge Ross Barlow

Three years’ development work on the canal longboat Ross Barlow by a team at UK’s University of Birmingham was recently spotlighted in news released by The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA – German acronym for ‘Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt’).

Ross Barlow, an 18 m long canal barge was converted to carry hydrogen for the fuel cells in hydride storage modules, developed by EMPA.  The modules contain sealed storage tubes packed with powdered alloys of titanium, zirconium, manganese, vanadium and iron, a mixture that readily absorbs hydrogen and acts as the storage medium. The shortcoming of this system is that the modules must be kept in temperature-regulated water tanks in order to dissipate heat generated when the modules are being ‘charged up’ with hydrogen or, conversely, to warm the water when necessary.

The technology itself was well tested durning a 105 km, four-day summer test cruise along Britain’s inland waterways. During the voyage a total 106 kWh of electrical energy was consumed (a quarter came from the hydrogen fuel-cells, the rest from lead-acid batteries and solar panels) meeting all energy needs, including electical power for the barge’s 10 kW permanent magnet motor propulsion system.

Reportedly, crew aboard the all-electric Ross Barlow appreciated their silent, exhaust-gas free progress through the locks and green inland waterways. The barge produced zero carbon dioxide emissions during the four-day test voyage, whilst a conventionally fuelled accompanying barge with a diesel engine emitted approximately 133 kg.

Latest Breakthrough by UCS Research Team

In the September 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society a team of researchers at USC (University of Southern California) led by Assistant Prof. Travis Williams published breakthrough findings on the use of a nitrogen-boron complex, ammonia borane (an innocuous chemical material) as a new chemical storage medium for hydrogen.

The USC team claim their ammonia borane based storage system is safe, robust, air-stable and re-usable, releasing sufficient hydrogen from storage to make it viable as a fuel source for hydrogen fuel cells. ‘Ours is the first game in town for re-usable, air stable ammonia borane dehydrogenation’ Prof. Williams reportedly said, going on to add that the USC Stevens Institute is in the process of patenting the system.


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