Hydrogen cars could actually become viable with new tech breakthrough

29 Aug 2017

A Polish hydrogen concept car at a motor show. Image: wjarek/Shutterstock

New developments in materials science could help make the hydrogen car a far more viable alternative to electric and fossil fuel vehicles.

While electric cars are considered the immediate answer to reducing the number of polluting vehicles on the road, hydrogen models have remained a very attractive alternative.

In fact, in many instances, hydrogen cars are more environmentally friendly than electric ones as they have a longer potential range, can be refuelled in minutes and do not require the manufacturing of a bulky battery.

However, the process of producing and distributing the hydrogen fuel has limited its mass availability in the market, with Toyota’s Mirai the best-known example.

A team of researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) believes it could solve this problem, thanks to some new liquid-metal membrane technology.

Under existing technology, pure hydrogen is obtained by pouring water through a membrane made from the precious metal palladium, which allows large quantities of hydrogen to come out the other side.

However, the metal is incredibly expensive and fragile, making it unfeasible for global use.

Opening the door to hydrogen energy research

In a paper published to the Journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the WPI team believes it has found an alternative in cheaper liquid metals, such as graphite and silicon carbide.

Until now, with no apparent palladium alternative in sight, teams attempted to make the membrane thinner and thinner, thereby making the process cheaper, to the point that they were testing layers as thing as five microns.

When liquefied using intense heat, the metals are placed into a membrane that has the same effect as palladium, but is not prone to defects or cracks that can render the latter unusable.

With the membrane tested and confirmed to be permeable to hydrogen, the question is now whether it can be utilised on an industrial scale for future hydrogen cars.

“By demonstrating the feasibility of sandwiched liquid-metal membranes, we have opened the door to a highly promising new area of hydrogen energy research,” said Ravindra Datta, head of the study.

A Polish hydrogen concept car shown at a motor show. Image:  wjarek/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic