Scientists achieve breakthrough in nanocomposite for high-capacity hydrogen storage

Mar 13, 2011
Transmission electron micrographs of an air-stable composite comprised of metallic magnesium nanocrystals in a gas-barrier polymer matrix that enables the high density storage and rapid release of hydrogen without the need for heavy, expensive metal catalysts. Credit: Images from National Center for Electron Microscopy

Since the 1970s, hydrogen has been touted as a promising alternative to fossil fuels due to its clean combustion —unlike hydrocarbon-based fuels, which spew greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants, hydrogen's only combustion by-product is water. Compared to gasoline, hydrogen is lightweight, can provide a higher energy density and is readily available. But there's a reason we're not already living in a hydrogen economy: to replace gasoline as a fuel, hydrogen must be safely and densely stored, yet easily accessed. Limited by materials unable to leap these conflicting hurdles, hydrogen storage technology has lagged behind other clean energy candidates.

In recent years, researchers have attempted to tackle both issues by locking into solids, packing larger quantities into smaller volumes with low reactivity—a necessity in keeping this volatile gas stable. However, most of these solids can only absorb a small amount of hydrogen and require extreme heating or cooling to boost their overall energy efficiency.

Now, scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have designed a new composite material for hydrogen storage consisting of nanoparticles of magnesium metal sprinkled through a matrix of polymethyl methacrylate, a polymer related to Plexiglas. This pliable rapidly absorbs and releases hydrogen at modest temperatures without oxidizing the metal after cycling—a major breakthrough in materials design for hydrogen storage, batteries and fuel cells.

"This work showcases our ability to design composite nanoscale materials that overcome fundamental thermodynamic and kinetic barriers to realize a materials combination that has been very elusive historically," says Jeff Urban, Deputy Director of the Inorganic Nanostructures Facility at the Molecular Foundry, a DOE Office of Science nanoscience center and national user facility located at Berkeley Lab. "Moreover, we are able to productively leverage the unique properties of both the polymer and nanoparticle in this new composite material, which may have broad applicability to related problems in other areas of energy research."

Urban, along with coauthors Ki-Joon Jeon and Christian Kisielowski used the TEAM 0.5 microscope at the National Center for Electron Microscopy (NCEM), another DOE Office of Science national user facility housed at Berkeley Lab, to observe individual magnesium nanocrystals dispersed throughout the polymer. With the high-resolution imaging capabilities of TEAM 0.5, the world's most powerful electron microscope, the researchers were also able to track defects—atomic vacancies in an otherwise-ordered crystalline framework—providing unprecedented insight into the behavior of hydrogen within this new class of storage materials.

This schematic shows high-capacity magnesium nanocrystals encapsulated in a gas-barrier polymer matrix to create a new and revolutionary hydrogen storage composite material. Credit: Image from Jeff Urban

"Discovering new materials that could help us find a more sustainable energy solution is at the core of the Department of Energy's mission. Our lab provides outstanding experiments to support this mission with great success," says Kisielowski. "We confirmed the presence of hydrogen in this material through time-dependent spectroscopic investigations with the TEAM 0.5 microscope. This investigation suggests that even direct imaging of hydrogen columns in such materials can be attempted using the TEAM microscope."

"The unique nature of Berkeley Lab encourages cross-division collaborations without any limitations," said Jeon, now at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, whose postdoctoral work with Urban led to this publication.

To investigate the uptake and release of hydrogen in their nanocomposite material, the team turned to Berkeley Lab's Energy and Environmental Technologies Division (EETD), whose research is aimed at developing more environmentally friendly technologies for generating and storing energy, including hydrogen storage.

"Here at EETD, we have been working closely with industry to maintain a hydrogen storage facility as well as develop hydrogen storage property testing protocols," says Samuel Mao, director of the Clean Energy Laboratory at Berkeley Lab and an adjunct engineering faculty member at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. "We very much enjoy this collaboration with Jeff and his team in the Materials Sciences Division, where they developed and synthesized this new material, and were then able to use our facility for their research."

Adds Urban, "This ambitious science is uniquely well-positioned to be pursued within the strong collaborative ethos here at Berkeley Lab. The successes we achieve depend critically upon close ties between cutting-edge microscopy at NCEM, tools and expertise from EETD, and the characterization and materials know-how from MSD."

Explore further: Nanostructure enlightening dendrite-free metal anode

More information: This research is reported in a paper titled, "Air-stable magnesium nanocomposites provide rapid and high-capacity hydrogen storage without heavy metal catalysts," appearing in the journal Nature Materials and available in Nature Materials online.

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User comments : 16

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dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2011
%?
StillWind
1.4 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2011
It's hard to imagine how combining hydrogen and magnesium can be safe, but compared to the boondogle of creating free hydrogen, I guess it's as good a waste of money as anything.
Chef
2 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2011
Knowing that we have too many political figures tied with the oil industry, this won't see the light of day for quite some time. It's a damn shame as this could become a huge industry and job creator that we desperately need here in the US, plus we would have the clean-tech that many are seeking.
eachus
2.3 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2011
It's a damn shame as this could become a huge industry and job creator that we desperately need here in the US, plus we would have the clean-tech that many are seeking.


Sigh! A hydrogen economy is coming, and will be made to work. But before that happens we need to build (in the US) several hundred nuclear power plants. Huh? Where did you expect to get the hydrogen from? If you produce it from coal or oil, it will be more expensive than coal or oil. Duh! What about making it from solar, tidal, or wind power? Again hydrogen from those sources will cost more than electricity from those sources. (Although there is some work on direct conversion of sunlight to hydrogen.)

Why nuclear? (Especially with what is going on in Japan right now.) Boiling water reactors (BWRs) are safer that the PWRs in Japan, since no external power is needed to add water to the reactor--and if it boils off too much water, it shuts itself down.
kaasinees
2.2 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2011
If you produce it from coal or oil, it will be more expensive than coal or oil.

They already do.

Duh! What about making it from solar, tidal, or wind power?

That is the main point of these batteries.
eachus
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2011
But there is one huge advantage to BWRs or PWRs for electricity. The radiation in the core splits water into hydrogen and oxygen directly. Most current light water reactors have a recombiner to combine the hydrogen and oxygen back into water. But you can draw the gas off, and sell the hydrogen. This is much more efficient than turning than using the electric power from the reactor to split water. (If you want to think in thermodynamic terms, the water cracking is not done by a heat engine so it's efficiency is not limited by the Carnot cycle. The easiest way to look at it is "as if" it were a combined cycle plant. Using hydrogen with fuel cells can be 80% efficient or higher, and that is added onto the thermal 25% or so you get from the reactor.)

Oh, and I probably should put up a page somewhere explaining why the PWR plants were chosen by the Japanese, even though PWR plants were subject to this scenario, a major earthquake quickly followed by a tsunami.
eachus
2 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2011
That is the main point of these batteries.


Double sigh! This technology, which I am very interested in--if/when I can find the actual paper--is about storing hydrogen in cars. There are some other applications, mostly in transportation (boats, snowmobiles, etc.) But think cars.

What is needed is a storage mechanism that works at moderate temperatures (not too hot or cold) can be filled quickly, and holds a sufficient amount per loading, and can be loaded hundreds of times without degradation. Then it can be combined with a fuel cell.

But hydrogen is a secondary fuel on Earth and always will be. (There is lots on the outer planets, but bringing it to Earth is probably infeasible.) On Earth, you need to create hydrogen before you can use it, and right now, nuclear is the only way to do that which isn't way too expensive.
kaasinees
2 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2011
--is about storing hydrogen in cars.

Mobile devices are in second place. First place is storage for renewable energy so they can store it when there is overproduction.
eric96
1.2 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2011
Another pointless article. Will never reach the consumer not within the next 50 years. Personally, the only science article I'd like to see with regard to innovation are those that make it to manufacturing otherwise its a puff of air as far I'm concerned. Hydrogen is not as abundant as the article claims, and is far too complicated to ever even have a chance at reaching consumers. Minus those luxury cars of course. The oil industry is investing in bio fuels and similar technologies so that their industry continues; they are the power figure. Government do nothing, but provide the occasional funding. You will be using gasoline or bio fuels forever.
Steven_J_Scannell
2 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2011
With my Tripe (track-pipe) system we can pipe both the hydrogen and oxygen for use as fuels, virtually anywhere and every where. What this would do to make the hydrogen economy closer to reality would be to help conquer the storage and shipment issues. I feel that compressed air, hydrogen, and oxygen rich compressed air can be the green fuels of the future. These are long term designs, and not quick fixes. The three new green fuels are common denominator conversions from all the sustainable sources of horsepower, such as wind, wave, solar, geothermal, which are usually far off site and would benefit from being stored and shipped via a pipe. Reconversions from Hydrogen to electricity, are the future. Reconversions of CAES, (compressed air energy storage) to augment power plants and cars, are the future. But my system has not been studied or modeled yet.
xznofile
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011
does the illustration showing refusal of oxygen & water mean the material needs no purification & dryers?
YTeddy
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011

Sigh! A hydrogen economy is coming, and will be made to work. But before that happens we need to build (in the US) several hundred nuclear power plants. Huh? Where did you expect to get the hydrogen from? If you produce it from coal or oil, it will be more expensive than coal or oil. Duh! What about making it from solar, tidal, or wind power? Again hydrogen from those sources will cost more than electricity from those sources. (Although there is some work on direct conversion of sunlight to hydrogen.)

Why nuclear? (Especially with what is going on in Japan right now.) Boiling water reactors (BWRs) are safer that the PWRs in Japan, since no external power is needed to add water to the reactor--and if it boils off too much water, it shuts itself down.


The Fukushima plant is BWR my friend.

Both types require pumps.
Royale
not rated yet Mar 15, 2011
I love how he says if the water gets too low it shuts itself down. What does that mean? Does that mean some little goblin pops out and just tells the Uranium to stop heating up? Since it does this by itself whilst inside it can't be "shut down".
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Mar 19, 2011
No storage capacity is reported.

Failure.
Vendicar_Decarian
4 / 5 (1) Mar 19, 2011
"Boiling water reactors (BWRs) are safer that the PWRs in Japan, since no external power is needed to add water to the reactor--and if it boils off too much water, it shuts itself down." - Eachus

The reactors experiencing problems in Japan are BWR type Boiling Water Reactors.

And they have been shut down since the earthquake.

The fuel - even though shut down is still producing about 12 megawatts of power due to the latent fission of the radioactive waste that was produced while the reactor was running.

Further, BWR reactors operate at lower pressures than PWR's so replacing the cooling water is significantly easier.

One can estimate that to power a global economy of 15 billion people consuming energy at U.S. levels of waste, strictly via nuclear, some 200,000 new nuclear reactors would have to be constructed.

Based on the history of core melts, those 200,000 reactors would suffer approximately 1 core melt per week.

braindead
5 / 5 (1) Mar 20, 2011
"With my Tripe (track-pipe) system we can pipe both the hydrogen and oxygen for use as fuels, virtually anywhere and every where."

Your Tripe system might be good, on the other hand it might be a load of old tripe.