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Hydrogen breakthrough could be a game-changer for future of car fuels

UK researchers have announced what they believe to be a game-changer in the use of hydrogen as a ‘green’ fuel.

A new discovery by scientists at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), offers a viable solution to the challenges of storage and cost by using ammonia as a clean and secure hydrogen-containing energy source to produce hydrogen on-demand in situ.

Hydrogen is considered by many to be the best alternative fuel for automotive purposes but there are complications with its safe and efficient storage and very significant concerns surrounding the costs of a hydrogen infrastructure for transportation. This new discovery may well have found the answers to both these challenges.

When the components of ammonia are separated (a technique known as cracking) they form one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen.

Many catalysts can effectively crack ammonia to release the hydrogen, but the best ones are very expensive precious metals. This new method is different and involves two simultaneous chemical processes rather than using a catalyst, and can achieve the same result at a fraction of the cost.

Ammonia can be stored on-board in vehicles at low pressures in conformable plastic tanks. Meanwhile on the forecourts, the infrastructure technology for ammonia is as straightforward as that for liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

Professor Bill David, who led the STFC research team at the ISIS Neutron Source, said: “Our approach is as effective as the best current catalysts but the active material, sodium amide, costs pennies to produce. We can produce hydrogen from ammonia ‘on demand’ effectively and affordably.

“Few people think of ammonia as a fuel but we believe that it is the natural alternative to fossil fuels. For cars, we don’t even need to go to the complications of a fuel-cell vehicle.

“A small amount of hydrogen mixed with ammonia is sufficient to provide combustion in a conventional car engine.  While our process is not yet optimised, we estimate that an ammonia decomposition reactor no bigger than a 2-litre bottle will provide enough hydrogen to run a mid-range family car.

“We’ve even thought about how we can make ammonia as safe as possible and stop the release of NOx gases. This fundamental science therefore has immense potential to change the use of hydrogen as a fuel."

Dr Martin Jones, also from STFC and who with Professor David invented this new process, said: “Having developed this new approach to decompose ammonia, we are now in the process of creating a first low-power static demonstrator system.

“Our technology will no doubt evolve, but our research invites scientists and technologists to address a different set of questions.”

David Willetts, the UK Minister for Universities and Science, said: “This is exactly the sort of innovation we need UK researchers and engineers to develop to secure our role as a global leader in this field, putting Britain at the forefront of solving modern day transportation problems.

“This breakthrough could also hugely contribute to our efforts to reduce our greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.”

Ammonia is already one of the most transported bulk chemicals worldwide. It is ammonia that is the feedstock for the fertilisers that enable the production of almost half the world’s food, says the researchers.

They added increasing ammonia production is technologically straightforward and there is no obvious reason why this existing infrastructure cannot be extended so that ammonia not only feeds but powers the planet.

While there is currently substantial interest and excitement in all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S, next year car manufacturers will begin to roll out a new generation of fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Batteries play a significant role in these cars but the vehicle range, which will be equivalent to conventional cars, will be provided by a fuel cell powered by hydrogen.

These hybrid vehicles are touted to be the way ahead but while all-battery cars have issues with driving range, hydrogen provision is a major headache both on-board for the fuel cells and on the forecourt for refuelling.

The hydrogen in these 2015 cars will be stored on-board in very high pressure tanks, and at even higher pressures at the forecourts.

The researchers say that safety issues of storing hydrogen on-board at these pressures are substantial while the cost issues of installing a new high-pressure infrastructure at the forecourts across the nation are currently massively prohibitive. 

Speaking about this new development from the team at STFC, Professor David MacKay FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said: “We believe that there is no single solution to the challenges we face in decarbonising the fuel chain, but this research suggests that ammonia based technologies are worth further consideration and may well play an important part in the future energy landscape.”

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  • Darren - 24/06/2014 12:03

    Call me a cynic, but I wonder how long it will be before the oil companies (backed by the government) quietly buy up and bury this technology, forcing us to continue using fossil fuels at extortionate prices and taxes.

    • Melvyn Day - 09/07/2014 08:09

      No need to think that what ever Fuel we use be it FREE or NOT in the short term, in the long term the Government will ALLWAYS find a way to Tax it as they must still raise the revenue required to run the Country, so when cars use NO fuel we will THEN BE TAXED PER MILE you can rest assured that driving is unlikely to EVER BE FREE.

  • Ralph - 24/06/2014 12:08

    Now watch as this is either mysteriously smothered/ goes quiet etc as the oil industry steps in, or, this ends up being innovated by a non UK company. Someone like BP needs to be invited by the UK government to invest, patent and develop it, then share it to everyones benefit.

  • Crummy - 24/06/2014 13:33

    Hmm, so what is the carbon footprint of making Ammonia? If it is from the fertiliser industry then it is one of the most carbon intensive production methods so would impact Carbon dioxide emissions. Secondly is this ammonia hydroxide or ammonia gas. If it is the latter it is heavier than air and would suffocate some on caught in a cloud of it. The usual case of raising hopes without specific details.

  • acair - 24/06/2014 15:32

    (sorry for my english) prodution of fuel will compete with prodution of food for the supply of ammonia. bad signs for food prices

  • Gasman - 24/06/2014 15:50

    Ammonia production uses Natural Gas as its base product, therefore why not just burn CNG in an engine (plenty about) and be done with all the wasteful middlemen....

  • Bob the Engineer - 25/06/2014 08:24

    Hmm what a choice, big car accident do we prefer being quickly burnt in a Hydrogen explosion or slowly burnt with gallons of concentrated Ammonia sprayed everywhere? At least liquid Hydrogen would either burn or quickly evaporate. An ammonia spill would require huge clean up Its bad enough now but this would cause the Dayglo Wombles to close roads for days after every accident as they try to contain the environmental disaster of it getting into the ground or water. I would rather take my chances with a Hydrogen tank on board, if you survive the initial bang (worst case) then that's the end of it. Instead of trying to persuavere with delivering a fluid into a car, cars should be radically redesigned to take an a standard sized ultra tough tank. The car should drive over a refuel pit and a hach open underneath, a robotic loader should reach up and swap the tank for an exchange fully fuelled one. It could be made easier and quicker than filling a big tank with slow flowing Diesel is now. Shorter range would be offset by quick, easy frequent refuels. science fiction? all technically very easy stuff to do just need the commitment.

    • Ralph - 25/06/2014 22:38

      @Bob the Engineer - so you are an engineer as well as a builder, hard hats off to you Bob!

  • Kerry Thompson - 26/06/2014 20:42

    Hydrogen is so ubiquitous in so may combinations, ammonia is just one of them and breaking down ammonia is just of many ways we can get hydrogen to the combustion chamber. The paradigm of having hydrogen storage systems in cars and hydrogen gas stations on very corner is the brick wall that is preventing this technology from advancing. This is a false paradigm. there are numerous substances that have hydrogen in them that can be separated just before it is needed in the compustion chamber.

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