Chemists to develop new materials for hydrogen storage in vehicles

Jan 27, 2012 By Julie Chao
Berkeley Lab scientist Jeffrey Long co-leads a project to develop novel materials for hydrogen storage. Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab

(PhysOrg.com) -- The biggest challenge with hydrogen-powered fuel cells lies in the storage of hydrogen: how to store enough of it, in a safe and cost-effective manner, to power a vehicle for 300 miles?  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is aiming to solve this problem by synthesizing novel materials with high hydrogen adsorption capacities.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded Berkeley Lab a three-year, $2.1 million grant for the project, which will also include contributions by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and General Motors (GM). The grant was part of more than $7 million awarded by DOE last month for storage technologies in electric vehicles.

“We’re working on materials called metal-organic frameworks to increase the capacity of hydrogen gas in a pressure cylinder, which would be the fuel tank,” said Jeffrey Long, a Berkeley Lab scientist who co-leads the project along with Berkeley Lab chemist Martin Head-Gordon. “With these materials, we’re working on storing the hydrogen without the use of very high pressures, which will be safer and also more efficient without the significant compression energy losses.”

Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are three-dimensional sponge-like framework structures that are composed primarily of carbon atoms and are extremely lightweight. “What’s very special about these materials is that you can use synthetic chemistry to modify the surfaces within the materials and make it attractive for hydrogen to stick on the surface,” Long explained.

Separately, Long is also using MOFs in a carbon capture project, in which the material would selectively absorb carbon dioxide over nitrogen. For the fuel cell project, the trick lies not in getting the MOF to select hydrogen out of a mixture but to store as much hydrogen as possible.

Currently, vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells can achieve a range of close to 300 miles—but only if the hydrogen is stored at extremely high pressures (600 to 700 bar), which is expensive and potentially unsafe. It is also energy intensive to pressurize the hydrogen.

So far Long has succeeded in more than doubling hydrogen capacity, but only at very low temperatures (around 77 Kelvin, or -321 Fahrenheit). “It’s still very much basic research on how to create revolutionary new materials that would boost the capacity by a factor of four or five at room temperature,” he said. “We have an idea of what kinds of frameworks we might make to do this.”

Long’s approach is to create frameworks with lightweight metal sites on the surface, making it attractive for hydrogen molecules to bind to the sites. “Our approach has been to make some of the first metal-organic frameworks that have exposed metal cations on the surface,” he said. “Now we need to figure out ways of synthesizing the so that instead of one hydrogen molecule we can get two or three or even four hydrogen molecules per metal site. Nobody’s done that.”

This is where Head-Gordon, a computational chemist, comes in. He will work on theoretical understanding of MOFs so that he can try to predict their properties and then instruct Long’s team as to what kind of material to synthesize. “He can do calculations on a lot of different target structures and say, here’s the best one for you guys to spend time trying to make, because synthetic chemistry is very cost and labor intensive,” Long said.

The scientist at GM will aid in providing accurate high-pressure measurements. The NIST scientist is an expert in neutron diffraction and neutron spectroscopy, which will allow Long and his team to pinpoint where exactly the hydrogen is going and verify that it is binding to the metals.

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MR166
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 27, 2012
"The biggest challenge with hydrogen-powered fuel cells lies in the storage of hydrogen: how to store enough of it, in a safe and cost-effective manner, to power a vehicle for 300 miles?"

I just love it when the first line of an article is a total falsehood!

The biggest problem with hydrogen is producing it in a cost effective manner. Until they can do that, electricity or natural gas are better used directly. Hydrogen might be a fantastic source of energy in a cost is no object environment such a the space shuttle but for day to day use it is still a pipe dream.
DirtySquirties
1 / 5 (2) Jan 29, 2012
Wow, MR166, I didn't realize that we could quantify how large the two problems are, compare them, and have a definitive 'biggest problem'. I'm glad you know all about problems with hydrogen power too, I would be lost in the dark without the enlightenment of your knowledge.
MR166
1 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2012
Yes Dirty, we can quantify it!!!! The quantifying parameter is called EROEI, look it up.
33Nick
not rated yet Jan 30, 2012
Hydrogen is not a source of energy. I can be turned into energy by burning it or in this case, useed as an energy medium storage which makes as much sense as keeping a fire in a fireplace burning by heating lead batteries. With enough energy, I guess you can do it. Talk about reinventing the wheel! Let's focus on what works now, not eventually and while we're at it, let's focus on round wheels, not square ones. Even squares wheels can work with enough energy but it's still ludicrous.
Callippo
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2012
The hydrocarbons are still the most effective and cheapest way of hydrogen storage.