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News Extra: Two breakthroughs bring hydrogen power closer to the mass-market

28 June 2013

Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen can be burned to produce energy without producing harmful emissions. It is also the most abundant element on the planet. Two new developments could help unlock the potential of hydrogen as a clean, cheap and reliable power source.

Intelligent Energy increased power output from 30kW to 40kW for the chosen test system without increasing system mass or size
Intelligent Energy increased power output from 30kW to 40kW for the chosen test system without increasing system mass or size

The first is a new method of producing hydrogen that appears to be less costly, less dangerous and also more environmentally sound than traditional methods.

Hydrogen is usually produced by reacting high temperature steam with methane or natural gas, and some is also made through the process of electrolysis — passing an electric current through water. Both processes involve splitting water into its constituent elements – hydrogen and oxygen. But scientists have had difficulty finding a way of extracting these elements at different times, which would make the process more energy-efficient and reduce the risk of explosions.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature Chemistry, quoted in the Independent, scientists at the University of Glasgow explain how they have managed to replicate the way plants use the sun’s energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen at separate times and at separate physical locations.

The University of Glasgow researchers have developed a new variation of electrolysis, which produces hydrogen and oxygen from water at different times, thanks to what researchers call an “electron-coupled proton buffer”. This acts to collect and store hydrogen while the current runs through the water, meaning that in the first instance only oxygen is released. The hydrogen can then be released when convenient.

Because pure hydrogen does not occur naturally, it takes energy to make it. This new version of electrolysis takes longer, but is safer and uses less energy per minute, making it easier to rely on renewable energy sources for the electricity needed to separate  the atoms.

The new system has the potential to produce hydrogen on an industrial scale much more cheaply and safely than is currently possible, while the existing gas infrastructure, which brings methane to homes across the country, could just as easily carry hydrogen. This would significantly reduce the country’s  carbon footprint.

The second breakthrough, also announced in mid-April, involves a Technology Strategy Board project looking into enhancing the power capacity of hydrogen fuel cell systems.

The £2.8 million development project involved collaboration between Intelligent Energy, Dyson Technology, Ricardo and TRW Conekt and ran from December 2009 to December 2012. It, focused on enhancing the reliability, durability and performance of Intelligent Energy’s fuel cell engines.

Intelligent Energy makes clean energy power systems for the consumer electronics, automotive and stationary power markets - from compact energy packs for mobile devices, to power-trains for zero-emission vehicles, and stationary power units for always-on infrastructure.

An increase in power density of more than 30% was achieved by the project team, delivering an improvement in power output from 30kW to 40kW for the chosen test system without increasing system mass or size. Additionally, through the introduction of a new coolant module developed specifically for the project, cold start performance was consistently achieved at temperatures down to -20°C.

Within the project, Intelligent Energy worked to improve the overall design and integration of the enhanced fuel cell system with Ricardo acting as the customer, providing a comprehensive automotive specification and sign-off at the end of the project. TRW Conekt validated the integrity of the fuel cell modules through vibration and environmental testing, helping to identify and prevent potential problems. Dyson Technology developed a compact, high efficiency compressor (a key subsystem for air delivery into the fuel cell system) based on their digital motor technology, which was engineered to integrate into an existing stack enclosure, a component already designed for mass production.

James Batchelor, Managing Director for Intelligent Energy’s Motive Division, said: “Fuel cell systems offer one of the most promising solutions to reducing carbon emissions from road vehicles. This collaborative programme helps to accelerate the introduction of our automotive technology with even greater levels of system power density and performance, making our fuel cell systems even more attractive across the power range, from below 30kW up to 200kW. With our recent stack power density improvements yet to incorporate, we expect to deliver even greater system-level performance in the near future.”

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