Uncompressed hydrogen will require a tank the size of a bus to take your car 300 miles but compressed hydrogen can be ... explosive ... unless the materials for storage get a lot better.

Engineers in the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have a different idea entirely:  they want to pack hydrogen into a larger molecule.

There are obstacles.   A gas flows easily out of a tank but getting hydrogen out of a molecule requires a catalyst. New details about one such catalyst in the Journal of the American Chemical Society may be a step toward better hydrogen energy applications such as fuel cells.

The PNNL scientists combined experimental and theoretical studies to identify the characteristics of the new catalyst, a cluster of rhodium, boron and other atoms. The catalyst chemically reacts with ammonia borane, a molecule that stores hydrogen densely, to release the hydrogen as a gas.

catalyst of rhodium boron hydrogen out of solid ammonia borane
A catalyst of rhodium, boron and other atoms will more efficiently get a half liter of hydrogen out of this small pellet of solid ammonia borane.  Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

"These studies tell us what is the hardest part of the chemical reaction," said PNNL chemist and study author Roger Rousseau. "If we can find a way to change the hard part, that is, make it easier to release the hydrogen, then we can improve this catalyst."

Researchers and engineers are trying to create a hydrogen fuel system that stores hydrogen safely and discharges hydrogen easily, which can then be used in fuel cells or other applications. 

One way to achieve such a fuel system is by "storing" hydrogen as part of a larger molecule. The molecule that contains hydrogen atoms, in this case ammonia borane, serves as a sort of structural support. The catalyst plucks the hydrogen from the ammonia borane as needed to run the device. 

The PNNL chemists in the Institute for Interfacial Catalysis study a rhodium-based catalyst that performs this job fairly well, but might have potential for improvement. Their initial work showed that the catalyst worked as a molecule that contained a core of four rhodium atoms in a tetrahedron, or a triangular pyramid, with each corner decorated with boron and other elements. But the rhodium and other atoms could line up in dozens of configurations in the molecule. 

That wasn't enough information for design improvements -- the team wanted to know which of the multitude of structures was the real catalyst, as well as how the atoms worked together to remove the hydrogen from ammonia borane. To find out, the researchers had to combine experimental work with theoretical work, because neither method was sufficient on its own.

First, the team followed the catalyst-ammonia borane reaction with several technologies. One of the most important is an uncommon technique known as operando XAFS, which allowed them to take X-ray snapshots of the catalyst in action. Most researchers examine a catalyst's structure when the catalyst is at a standstill, but that is like trying to figure out how an athlete performs by watching him sleep.