October 02 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2013 Rating: 4
How might storing electricity in the form of solid hydrogen change the future landscape of energy? We believe it could change the performance of mobile power, lower the cost of renewable energy production, and change the nature of refueling your car by ‘swapping out’ boxes of fuel.
Hydrogen & Electricity = ‘Hydricity’
Electricity powers the future. Look beyond the transportation sector of liquid fuels, and most devices and machines run on electrons. Today, we understand the important role of electricity in our world, and tomorrow we might understand its sister companion – hydrogen.
Hydrogen might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented piece of the future energy landscape. Devotees often overstate it as the savior of Planet Earth, and staunch critics underestimate its short term challenges for longer term potential in energy systems and materials science.
A ‘Hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. The hydrogen is merely a way of storing electron power via chemical bonds of hydrogen. So hydrogen and electricity are one in the same thing. Ballard Power Founder Geoffrey Ballad has coined the phrase ‘hydricity’ to help people understand the balance of these electrons carriers.
Fuel cells capture energy released when coated membranes strip apart those hydrogen-hydrogen bonds and merge it with oxygen to get water. This is a much more efficient (and cleaner) process when compared to blowing up carbon-hydrogen bonds via combustion. But it is also harder and more expensive (at least today!).
Advances in Hydrogen Storage
The two challenges for hydrogen are production and storage. For now we’ll focus on an emerging platform for high density, low cost and safe storage systems based on ‘solid’ hydrogen.
News from Argonne National Laboratory on ‘crystal sponges’
The idea beyond solid hydrogen storage is relatively simple. Take materials that have high surface area and store the hydrogen molecules (chemically or physically) inside the material.
The key is to make this high surface area system from low-cost, abundant materials and have the hydrogen adsorption and release occur at low pressures. Storing hydrogen as a solid is very safe, so the next step is to have the energy density reach a level comparable to the high hydrogen value of gasoline.
(10/6/08- There are a number of potential material foundations for solid state hydrogen storage. For this post we choose to highlight one in particular that holds significant promise.)
Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs)
Metal-organic Frameworks or MOFs, are essentially Lego-like scaffolds for holding molecules like hydrogen and carbon. At the nanoscale MOFs have the highest known surface area of any known material combination. If you take a few grams of MOF material you would have several football fields of surface area. The goal is to fill as much of that open area with ‘guest’ molecules like hydrogen.
Researchers at Argonne National Energy laboratory are now pushing forward with key research in understanding MOFs. Their efforts are focused on understanding how MOF materials behave under pressure. Their characterizations of different MOF compounds could accelerate advances in practical energy applications.
(10/6/08 Added: related stories below for other research/commercialization efforts per Comment section question)
New Business Models
If we can create high density solid hydrogen storage systems, we can begin to imagine new ways of delivering energy around the world.
Vehicles: Instead of fueling your car using a ‘pump’, imagine simply swapping out a box of hydrogen. The transportation fuel sector could reinvent itself around new retail distribution centers. And there would be no need to convert gas pumps into hydrogen pumps.
Portable Power: Imagine buying an electronic device that never has to be plugged in! Instead of recharging a battery, you simply buy small packets of electrons and refill your energy supply. No more cords, no more downtime. Instead we might use power sources that you can buy at any retail location (much like the ubiquity of bottled water). Today this model of micro-fuel cells is evolving around liquid methanol, but in a decade solid hydrogen might evolve as a better alternative.
Renewable Energy farms- One of the challenges of solar and wind energy production is storage and access to transmission lines. Rather than produce energy for immediate transmission onto the electricity grid, solar and wind farms could store the electricity in the form of hydrogen. (Cheaper than batteries) Those solid blocks could be transported to grid connection points, or delivered directly to onsite production centers. Direct hydrogen conversion could greatly expand the remote locations for wind and solar production that are currently off limits because the cost of connecting to the grid.
These are just a few ideas based on a very disruptive idea in energy storage that goes beyond traditional batteries.
‘But I heard hydrogen is not safe, waste of energy, etc…’
Hydrogen fuel cells are not a savior to the planet, nor are they a waste of time as many critics would like us to believe. The real picture is likely in the middle. There is a balanced, forward-looking view of how hydrogen might expand the domain of electricity and we believe this is a future worth exploring.
Hydrogen as a solid is a meme we expect to grow in the months and years ahead.
Update on MOF commercialization efforts
Heading to Market with MOFs (August 2008)
Read my comment below for perspective on spectrum of solid hydrogen storage material options Carbon Nanotube breakthrough
Chemical Engineering News MOF report from 2002 (Background article)
Researchers Demonstrate 7.5 wt% Hydrogen Storage in MOFs
-Omar Yaghi (pioneered MOFs research while University of Michigan) now a Professor at UCLA -Yaghi Presentation -We will highlight other leading laboratories in the US, Europe and Asia in the weeks ahead.
Image Sources: MOF-4 and MOF-5 from Omar Yaghi Laboratory