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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Our Most Abundant Chemical Is The Future Of Fuel

Hydrogen is the renewable fuel that could eliminate the biggest source of demand for fossil fuels—the transportation industry. It is the star in a script for a hydrogen economy built on electrolysis, the process that yields emission-free hydrogen fuel. And now, this script has come a step closer to reality thanks to a new material.

A team of scientists from Northwestern University said this month they had developed an ultraporous material that can be used for storing hydrogen. Storage is one of the challenges hydrogen needs to overcome before becoming a mainstream fuel, and the NU material may go a long way towards solving this problem.

The problem comes down to the cost and safety of storing hydrogen. 

The most abundant chemical element in the universe can be stored either as a compressed gas or as a liquid. Both methods are costly and, more importantly, they carry risks because of the immense pressure of a hydrogen tank due to its high flammability. 

To address this problem, the Northwestern University team set out to develop a new material, something called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that could store a lot more hydrogen than other adsorbent materials much more cheaply, and much more safely, the team said in a news release.

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What is a MOF? In this case, it is a framework of organic molecules and metal ions that self-assemble into a multidimensional, ultraporous structure. As the lead author of the project, associate professor Omar K. Farha says, “envision a set of Tinkertoys in which the metal ions or clusters are the circular or square nodes and the organic molecules are the rods holding the nodes together.”

As an illustration of what the material is capable of, the authors report that a sample of one gram has a volume equal to the volume of six M&Ms and—wait for it—a surface area equal to 1.3 football fields. That’s some surface area right there.

“We can store tremendous amounts of hydrogen and methane within the pores of the MOFs and deliver them to the engine of the vehicle at lower pressures than needed for current fuel cell vehicles,” Farha says.

That could be one hydrogen economy problem almost solved, which would be a major step in the right direction. There is a lot of promise being heaped on hydrogen: early 2017 saw the launch of the Hydrogen Council, a group involving several leading automakers as well as Shell and Total, seeking ways to make hydrogen more commercially viable. The council allocated $1.4 billion on the development of energy storage and fuel cell project development until 2020, and expressed high hopes for the future.

That may be petty cash compared to any Big Oil’s investment plan for any given year, but it sent a message that hydrogen is going to feature more in the world’s energy mix. However, it has yet to take over gasoline and diesel, even with the storage problem solved thanks to the new material. For starters, hydrogen is a lot more expensive than gasoline and diesel. So are hydrogen cars compared to gasoline cars. Right now, they are being made more affordable with massive subsidies, but China recently showed the world how much a subsidy bill could swell if you don’t plan for the long term when it canceled solar farm subsidies because it could no longer afford them.

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And then there is the cost of production. Not all hydrogen is made equal. In fact, there are three varieties, depending on what source material is used to produce the element. There is grey hydrogen, produced from coal and natural gas, there is blue hydrogen, made from natural gas, and there’s green hydrogen, the truly renewable sort, produced via water electrolysis. Currently, the blue version is the cheapest one, but clean energy purists are pushing for more green hydrogen.

According to the Hydrogen Council, the continuous scale-up of hydrogen production and distribution could lead to a 50-percent decline in costs by 2030 for many hydrogen applications, making green hydrogen competitive with other low-carbon alternatives and, in some cases, even conventional options. On the flip side, this would require investments of some $70 billion. 

There is also the issue of fueling stations. For now, these are few and very far between. Yet if hydrogen is to become a mainstream fuel, billions would need to be spent on a dense enough network of fueling stations. With hydrogen car sales at a meager 7,500 last year, however, such investment is likely considered a high-risk one, despite the subsidies.

So, it seems that it will yet be a while before the hydrogen economy replaces the old fossil fuel order in the world. But the ultraporous MOF that the researchers from Northwestern developed is not just for hydrogen. The material can also be used to store methane and use it to power vehicles. Maybe at some point, it could be used to deliver methane for other purposes, such as heating and power generation. 

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Mike Berger on April 21 2020 said:
    Well if that isn't the most specious reasoning I've heard in a long time!!!

    The whole point of hydrogen hype is that you can source it fairly cleanly from natural gas.

    Its a perfect holding action against anything not drill-baby-drill. Seemingly perfect in the abstract, but never, ever realizable in any economically manner.

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