A FUTURE where cars are powered by hydrogen and the only 'exhaust' is water vapour is moving closer, with researchers here and in the UK making major advances.
A team at CSIRO Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology has developed a small hydrogen device, the size of a domestic microwave oven, to fuel a family car. The device can extract enough hydrogen per day from water to power a family car for up to150km. This work is an important part of CSIRO's Energy Transformed Flagship research program into positioning Australia for a future hydrogen economy.
Currently, the hydrogen unit runs on main's power, but researchers are investigating how to power the unit with renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.
While the idea of fuelling your car with hydrogen generated from a solar panel might sound like science fiction, project leader Dr Sukhvinder Badwal says concepts such as the hydrogen economy are real possibilities.
While he admits, at this stage, hydrogen cannot compete with fossil fuels, but says rising oil prices could create a different scenario.
He describes hydrogen as the cleanest fuel nature has given us and its portability and flexibility makes it ideal for a range of applications, including transport.
Dr Badwal says the team is still in the research and development stage, but "would like to have a commercial partner on board, as full-scale commercialisation is three to four years away".
Professor Max Lu, the director of the ARC Centre for Functional Nanotechnology, is conducting research into the 'hydrogen economy' of the future, using nanotechnology to develop fuel cells that can convert hydrogen to electricity quickly and without pollution.
"The difficulty has been to store enough hydrogen rapidly, and to release it quickly," said Professor Lu of The University of Queensland.
Current hydrogen storage systems need to operate under high pressure or high temperature, which makes them bulky and uses up precious energy when it is time to discharge the hydrogen. But Professor Lu's research has developed a promising solid material that can absorb and store higher amounts of hydrogen, which can be easily released when needed, using nanotechnology.
Traditionally cast or melt metals for hydrogen storage have a coarse structure with a large grain size. But by using nanotechnology processing techniques to make light metal absorbing hydrogen, Professor Lu has created a light and cheap metal alloys with a small grain size. This helps the hydrogen overcome the 'energy barrier' when moving from a gas into a solid. The finer the metal grains, the lower the energy barrier for absorption. This means the hydrogen can be put into the material at lower temperatures and pressures - a significant energy saving and breakthrough towards practical applications in fuel cells.
Petrol and hydrogen mix
In the UK, scientists have developed a new technology, said to be the first of its kind, where vehicles would use water as the main fuel supply and need only a small amount of petrol.
The vehicle would have a generator that extracts hydrogen from tap water to mix it with a normal petrol supply, creating an environmentally friendly "super fuel" that stretches the unleaded petrol, enabling the car to go further on less fuel.
The technology is a hydrogen-from-water generating process that could help to solve many of the hydrogen creation and storage problems faced today.
UK government sources say that if commercially viable, the technology - discovered by Russian experts who have established a UK company called OM Energy Ltd - could eventually develop to enable ships to use seawater for fuel. •