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Could Hydrogen Fuel Finally Work?

Could Hydrogen Fuel Finally Work?

Study shows how atom could get its day in the sun.

Of all the alternatives to fossil-based fuels, hydrogen seemed to have it all. It was efficient, left no waste except water vapor (but that’s a good thing), and promised to provide even more energy than nuclear energy, oil or gas.

The only problem was, hydrogen is literally elusive. As a gas, it is difficult to store and transport, and reducing it to liquid form cost more than the benefit of burning it. In other cases, hydrogen can be combined with methanol, but releasing the hydrogen requires heating the methanol to 200°C, at huge atmospheric pressures. So, scientists have spent decades trying to find safe and less costly ways to harness the energy of hydrogen into a more usable form.

Engineer Matthias Bellar at the University of Rostock in Germany thinks he has found the answer. His team reported in the February 27 Nature that they found a metallic catalyst (ruthenium) that will allow the release of hydrogen from methanol at much lower temperatures (say, up to 95°C) and at standard atmospheric pressure.

While not quite ready to power entire cities or countries, Bellar believes the method could provide enough energy for a cell phone, or even a car. Other scientists are looking at matching the new methanol-extraction method with hydrogen fuel cells, to make a more efficient power plant (if only a small one). Another problem with the technology: the catalyzed reaction releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that will need to be kept from entering the atmosphere.

While engineering problems about (like most new discoveries) and other scientists have some skepticism, the discovery does show some promise for the elusive hydrogen atom.

Reference: Nielsen, M., Alberico, E., Baumann, W., Drexler, H., Junge, H., Gladiali, S., & Beller, M. (2013). Low-temperature aqueous-phase methanol dehydrogenation to hydrogen and carbon dioxide Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature11891
Photo Credit: Zero Emission Resource Organization /Flickr

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