Hydrogen is the fuel-cell future but currently it has a number of issues, primarily related to storage(1) and cost.   Cost because getting hydrogen out of a molecule requires a catalyst and efficient catalysts, like platinum, dissolve during the stop-and-go driving of a fuel-cell-powered electric car - as much as 45 percent of the catalyst can be lost during five days. 

You know when gold looks cheap by comparison your energy technology is not ready for the mass market.

Chemical engineers at Purdue University say they are onto a new solution, a process they call hydrothermolysis, which uses ammonia borane, one of the highest hydrogen contents of all solid materials.  The new process combines hydrolysis and thermolysis, two hydrogen-generating processes that are not practical by themselves for vehicle applications.

Ammonia borane contains 19.6 percent hydrogen, a high weight percentage that means a relatively small quantity and volume of the material are needed to store large amounts of hydrogen.  In hydrolysis, water is combined with ammonia borane and the process requires a catalyst to generate hydrogen, while in thermolysis the material must be heated to more than 170 degrees Celsius, or more than 330 degrees Fahrenheit, to release sufficient quantities of hydrogen.

Fuel cells that will be used in cars operate at about 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit). Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity to run an electric motor.  The new process also promises to harness waste heat from fuel cells to operate the hydrogen generation reactor.

The researchers conducted experiments using a reactor vessel operating at the same temperature as fuel cells. The process requires maintaining the reactor at a pressure of less than 200 pounds per square inch, far lower than the 5,000 psi required for current hydrogen-powered test vehicles that use compressed hydrogen gas stored in tanks.

"This is the first process to provide exceptionally high hydrogen yield values at near the fuel-cell operating temperatures without using a catalyst, making it promising for hydrogen-powered vehicles," said Arvind Varma, R. Games Slayter Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and head of the School of Chemical Engineering."We have a proof of concept."

In some experiments, the researchers used water containing a form of hydrogen called deuterium. Using water containing deuterium instead of hydrogen enabled the researchers to trace how much hydrogen is generated from the hydrolysis reaction and how much from the thermolysis reaction, details critical to understanding the process.

At the optimum conditions, hydrogen from the hydrothermolysis approach amounted to about 14 percent of the total weight of the ammonia borane and water used in the process. This is significantly higher than the hydrogen yields from other experimental systems reported in the scientific literature, Varma said.

"This is important because the U.S. Department of Energy has set a 2015 target of 5.5 weight percent hydrogen for hydrogen storage systems, meaning available hydrogen should be at least 5.5 percent of a system's total weight," he said. "If you're only yielding, say, 7 percent hydrogen from the material, you're not going to make this 5.5 percent requirement once you consider the combined weight of the entire system, which includes the reactor, tubing, the ammonia borane, water, valves and other required equipment."

The researchers determined that a concentration of 77 percent ammonia borane is ideal for maximum hydrogen yield using the new process.    Future work on hydrothermolysis will explore scaling up the reactor to the size required for a vehicle to drive 350 miles before refueling. Additional research also is needed to develop recycling technologies for turning waste residues produced in the process back into ammonia borane.

The research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy by a grant through the Energy Center in Purdue's Discovery Park.   Their findings were presented during the International Symposium on Chemical Reaction Engineering in Philadelphia and will be published in an upcoming issue of the AIChE Journal.  The symposium paper was written by former Purdue doctoral student Moiz Diwan, now a senior research engineer at Abbott Laboratories in Chicago; Purdue postdoctoral researcher Hyun Tae Hwang; doctoral student Ahmad Al-Kukhun; and Varma.

Purdue has filed a patent application on the technology.


(1) Storage is another article but uncompressed hydrogen will require a tank the size of a bus to move your car 300 miles while compressed hydrogen requires very high pressure (more than 800 bars) and is obviously dangerous traveling at high speeds, where a crack in the container can lead to fatal consequences.