Material breakthrough could usher in hydrogen car revolution

15 May 2019

Image: © Maksim/

Researchers have forged a new material that could bring hydrogen cars to the masses by solving one of their biggest problems.

The realisation that climate change is here and that the need for action is paramount has seen a rapid rise in electric vehicle (EVs) sales. One of the biggest obstacles is that in the age of the internal combustion engine (ICE), filling up your fuel tank takes just a few minutes, compared with approximately 20 minutes in EVs.

Another cleaner alternative is hydrogen cars, which can fill a car’s tank in the same amount of time as an ICE car, only emitting water vapour. The big problem with this technology, however, is that its fuel systems have so far been large, complex and very expensive.

Now, in a paper published to Energy and Environmental Science, an international research team led by Lancaster University believes it could eliminate these major issues and help kick-start a hydrogen car revolution following the forging of a new material.

The material, called Kubas Manganese Hydride-1 (KMH-1), can be used to create molecular sieves within fuel tanks that work alongside fuel cells in a hydrogen-powered system. KMH-1 would not only enable the design of tanks that are far smaller and cheaper, it would also be more convenient and energy-dense than existing hydrogen fuel to significantly outperform EVs.

“The cost of manufacturing our material is so low and the energy density it can store is so much higher than a lithium-ion battery, that we could see hydrogen fuel cell systems that cost five times less,” said Prof David Antonelli, who led the team. He added that it could potentially allow for journeys up to around four or five times longer between fill-ups.

Hydrogen drones

The new material takes advantage of a chemical process called Kubas binding, which eliminates a hydrogen fuel system’s need to split and bind the bonds between hydrogen atoms (this requires high energy, extreme temperatures and costly systems).

KMH-1 also absorbs and stores any excess energy so external heat and cooling isn’t needed. This is a crucial element of the process because it means vehicles wouldn’t need to install systems to cater to cooling and heating, making them far more fuel-efficient.

Experiments have so far shown that the material could enable the storage of four times as much hydrogen in the same volume as existing systems. While vehicles are seen as benefiting the most from this breakthrough, the research team said it has other uses as well.

“This material can also be used in portable devices such as drones or within mobile chargers so people could go on week-long camping trips without having to recharge their devices,” said Antonelli. “The real advantage this brings is in situations where you anticipate being off-grid for long periods of time, such as long-haul truck journeys, drones and robotics. It could also be used to run a house or a remote neighbourhood off a fuel cell.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic