Hydrogen Breakthrough Could Open the Road to Carbon-Free Cars

A team of UK scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire have developed a compound of the element lithium, which may make it practical to store enough hydrogen onboard fuel-cell-powered cars to enable them to drive more than 300 miles before refueling.

Achieving this driving range is a breakthrough considered essential if a mass market for fuel cell cars is to develop in future years, but has yet not been possible using current hydrogen storage technologies due to the weight and size implications.

The new research has focused on an approach that could enable hydrogen to be stored at a much higher density and within acceptable weight limits. The option involves a well-established process called ‘chemisorption,’ in which atoms of a gas are absorbed into the crystal structure of a solid-state material and released when needed.

The team, under the auspices of the UK Sustainable Hydrogen Energy Consortium (UK-SHEC), has tested thousands of solid-state compounds in search of a light, cheap, readily available material which would enable the absorption/desorption process to take place rapidly and safely at typical fuel cell operating temperatures. They have now produced a variety of lithium hydride (specifically Li4BN3H10) that could offer the right blend of properties. Development work is now needed to further investigate the potential of this powder.

“This could be a major step towards the breakthrough that the fuel cell industry and the transport sector have waited for,” said UK-SHEC’s Project Coordinator Professor Peter Edwards of the University of Oxford. “This work could make a key contribution to helping fuel cell cars become viable for mass-manufacture within around 10 years.”

The UK Sustainable Hydrogen Energy Consortium (UK-SHEC) is funded by the SUPERGEN (Sustainable Power Generation and Supply) initiative, which is managed and led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).