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Friday, 16 December 2011

Nanotechnology to harness the power of hydrogen

Dec 16, 2011

The Inorganic Solid State & Materials Research Group is using nanotechnology to try to find a way of turning the universe’s most abundant element, Hydrogen, into a viable source of energy.

When hydrogen is combusted in air, it binds with oxygen to create energy alongside a solitary byproduct: water. Being a relatively cheap and very green source of power, hydrogen is an attractive proposition for companies who are keen to support research into the next generation of fuels and, as a result, the Glasgow researchers have the backing of a consortium of major companies. Indeed, EADS Innovation Works, of which Airbus is a subsidiary, are testing the technology in aeroplanes, with plans in place to build and test a hydrogen fuel cell system in an unmanned aircraft in 2014.

‘The technology that we’re working on at Glasgow is at the forefront of research into sustainable fuels,’ says Glasgow Professor of Inorganic Materials Duncan Gregory, who is head of the research group which is working on hydrogen storage and sustainable energy materials. ‘We are the only group in Scotland working in this area and we have been awarded an Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council grant of over £3 million to work with the Universities of St Andrews, Strathclyde and Newcastle on a four-year project to develop a new hybrid system combining hydrogen storage, fuel cells and lithium batteries.

‘This is an exciting time to be working in this area, but it is very challenging work.’

Trying to store hydrogen is notoriously difficult; problems can occur in attempting to keep the substance in a manageable form useful in applications such as cars or aeroplanes. In order for hydrogen to be a feasible fuel source for a vehicle, it needs to be stored safely, occupy a relatively small volume and present a minimal burden in terms of weight. Finding a way of storing hydrogen that fulfils all these necessary requirements has so far proved so difficult that using hydrogen as a fuel might still seem a long way off.

The most feasible option is storing hydrogen as a solid; this involves binding the hydrogen atoms to another substance that would act like a sponge, soaking it up; the hydrogen could then be safely stored until it was needed. Until now the problem with this method was that existing materials either bonded to the hydrogen too strongly or not strongly enough.

To overcome this problem, the team at Glasgow are using nanotechnology to build a new substance to their own specifications, which is capable of trapping and releasing hydrogen only under the right conditions.

‘We’re approaching this by trying to develop some kind of nanomaterial that fits our purpose,’ says Professor Gregory. ‘The reason that we are doing this is that when it comes to solid-state storage there are two extremes; on the one hand you can have porous, spongelike solids that are easy to get hydrogen to bind to, but they also release it too easily; on the other hand, you can have materials that hold the hydrogen too well, meaning that you have to heat the material up to get it to release again and this requires energy.

‘So what we need is some kind of solution that’s in the middle of these two extremes and we think nanofabrication is the way to do this.’

Using the state-of-the-art synthesis techniques and facilities at the University’s Kelvin Nanocharacterisation Centre, the group can begin to build compounds to meet their needs and make the reactions that bind hydrogen to solids in a fuel cell much easier to control.

‘We have a patent on a nanostructured material, based on lithium nitride, and when you react this with hydrogen it goes through two stages whereupon hydrogen becomes bonded in the structure,’ says Professor Gregory.

‘There are several ways in which making a nanostructured version of this material improves its performance: for example, we can get reactions to happen faster because the nanomaterials have a high surface area. However, we also want to see if we can apply our techniques to create other materials that may have different and useful properties, and there are companies backing us who are interested in the work we are doing here at the University.’

Indeed, the work done by university research groups such as Glasgow’s are opening the gates to a new world of energy production. Although we are only at the research stage, the potential of this technology is huge, as harnessing the potential of hydrogen may be the beginning of the end of our reliance on fossil fuels and a step towards a cleaner and greener future.

Source: Glasgow University


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