New Material Could Make Hydrogen Powered Cars Financially Feasible

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Where hydrogen fuel cells beat out electric batteries is in range and ease of recharge. When it comes to cost and size, electric batteries rule and therefore dominate the playing field. But that could change.

  • Clean running hydrogen fuel hasn’t been a better option for electric cars than batteries because of cost, complexity and weight of the system.
  • The discovery of a new material eliminates several obstacles standing in the way of more automakers adopting hydrogen fuel technology. 
  • If the material works as planned, hydrogen could become a preferable source of energy due to its ease of use and range.

An international team of researchers led by Professor David Antonelli, Chair in Physical Chemistry at Lancaster University (U.K.), discovered a new material made from manganese hydride called KMH-1 (Kubas Manganese Hydride-1). It would be used to make molecular sieves within hydrogen fuel tanks to work alongside fuel cells in a hydrogen powered system.

One of the problems with hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars  is that they demand a lot of space for storage. Additionally, liquid storage wastes energy due to required cooling and hydrogen lost during boil off. Combine that with designing a tank that can compress the hydrogen under high pressure and you’ve got a lot of challenges.

Image: Alternative Energy

Possibly a game-changing molecule

In current hydrogen fuel systems, splitting H2 molecule requires a lot of energy, high temperatures and more complex equipment to pull it off. What KMH-1 does is attach to the H2 molecule and distance the atoms in a process called Kubas binding.

Distancing the atoms removes the need to split and bind the bonds between them, which is necessary to convert the hydrogen into energy. More specifically, the sieve functions through absorption of hydrogen at low 120 atmospheres of pressure, less than a typical scuba tank. Once pressure is released, the hydrogen moves from the tank into the fuel cell to power the car.

Since KMH-1 also absorbs and stores excess heat, it also works at room temperature, removing the need for cooling and heating equipment. This equipment not only adds weight, but also sucks energy to keep the fuel cell functioning rather than powering the car. With a lighter load and less energy expenditure, the car will become more efficient.

Antonelli, who has been researching hydrogen fuel cells for more than 15 years, said, “The cost of manufacturing our material is so low, and the energy density it can store is so much higher than a lithium ion battery, that we could see hydrogen fuel cell systems that cost five times less than lithium ion batteries as well as providing a much longer range — potentially enabling journeys up to around four or five times longer between fill-ups.”

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle
2019 Toyota Mirai, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. (Photo: Toyota)

Hydrogen fuel cars quickly “recharge”

Plugging in to fully recharge an electric battery can take 20 mins to several hours, depending upon how much charge is left in the battery and the efficiency of charging system. In contrast, a hydrogen vehicle can just drive up and refuel with a hydrogen pump, similar to filling up a gas tank.

More than just applications for vehicles, KMH-1 holds the promise of other devices reliant on batteries. “This material can also be used in portable devices such as drones or within mobile chargers so people could go on week-long camping trips without having to recharge their devices,” said Antonelli. “The real advantage this brings is in situations where you anticipate being off grid for long periods of time, such as long-haul truck journeys, drones, and robotics. It could also be used to run a house or a remote neighbourhood off a fuel cell.”

The University of South Wales has licensed the technology to a spin-off company part owned by Antonelli, called “Kubagen.”

Like electric vehicles powered by batteries, those powered by hydrogen fuel cells create clean energy. The only “emissions” are electricity, water and heat. Right now, most vehicle manufacturers are investing in electric battery technology. If KMH-1 functions as planned in real-world conditions, then hydrogen might be an economical and efficient fuel for the future.

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