Might solid hydrogen power our future? New advances pave the way.

October 02 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2013   Rating: 4

How might storing electricity in the form of solid hydrogen change the future landscape of energy? We believe it could change the performance of mobile power, lower the cost of renewable energy production, and change the nature of refueling your car by ‘swapping out’ boxes of fuel.

Hydrogen & Electricity = ‘Hydricity’
Electricity powers the future. Look beyond the transportation sector of liquid fuels, and most devices and machines run on electrons. Today, we understand the important role of electricity in our world, and tomorrow we might understand its sister companion – hydrogen.

Hydrogen might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented piece of the future energy landscape. Devotees often overstate it as the savior of Planet Earth, and staunch critics underestimate its short term challenges for longer term potential in energy systems and materials science.

A ‘Hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. The hydrogen is merely a way of storing electron power via chemical bonds of hydrogen. So hydrogen and electricity are one in the same thing. Ballard Power Founder Geoffrey Ballad has coined the phrase ‘hydricity’ to help people understand the balance of these electrons carriers.

Fuel cells capture energy released when coated membranes strip apart those hydrogen-hydrogen bonds and merge it with oxygen to get water. This is a much more efficient (and cleaner) process when compared to blowing up carbon-hydrogen bonds via combustion. But it is also harder and more expensive (at least today!).

Advances in Hydrogen Storage
The two challenges for hydrogen are production and storage. For now we’ll focus on an emerging platform for high density, low cost and safe storage systems based on ‘solid’ hydrogen.

News from Argonne National Laboratory on ‘crystal sponges’

The idea beyond solid hydrogen storage is relatively simple. Take materials that have high surface area and store the hydrogen molecules (chemically or physically) inside the material.

The key is to make this high surface area system from low-cost, abundant materials and have the hydrogen adsorption and release occur at low pressures. Storing hydrogen as a solid is very safe, so the next step is to have the energy density reach a level comparable to the high hydrogen value of gasoline.

(10/6/08- There are a number of potential material foundations for solid state hydrogen storage. For this post we choose to highlight one in particular that holds significant promise.)

Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs)
Metal-organic Frameworks or MOFs, are essentially Lego-like scaffolds for holding molecules like hydrogen and carbon. At the nanoscale MOFs have the highest known surface area of any known material combination. If you take a few grams of MOF material you would have several football fields of surface area. The goal is to fill as much of that open area with ‘guest’ molecules like hydrogen.

Researchers at Argonne National Energy laboratory are now pushing forward with key research in understanding MOFs. Their efforts are focused on understanding how MOF materials behave under pressure. Their characterizations of different MOF compounds could accelerate advances in practical energy applications.

(10/6/08 Added: related stories below for other research/commercialization efforts per Comment section question)

New Business Models
If we can create high density solid hydrogen storage systems, we can begin to imagine new ways of delivering energy around the world.

Vehicles: Instead of fueling your car using a ‘pump’, imagine simply swapping out a box of hydrogen. The transportation fuel sector could reinvent itself around new retail distribution centers. And there would be no need to convert gas pumps into hydrogen pumps.

Portable Power: Imagine buying an electronic device that never has to be plugged in! Instead of recharging a battery, you simply buy small packets of electrons and refill your energy supply. No more cords, no more downtime. Instead we might use power sources that you can buy at any retail location (much like the ubiquity of bottled water). Today this model of micro-fuel cells is evolving around liquid methanol, but in a decade solid hydrogen might evolve as a better alternative.

Renewable Energy farms- One of the challenges of solar and wind energy production is storage and access to transmission lines. Rather than produce energy for immediate transmission onto the electricity grid, solar and wind farms could store the electricity in the form of hydrogen. (Cheaper than batteries) Those solid blocks could be transported to grid connection points, or delivered directly to onsite production centers. Direct hydrogen conversion could greatly expand the remote locations for wind and solar production that are currently off limits because the cost of connecting to the grid.

These are just a few ideas based on a very disruptive idea in energy storage that goes beyond traditional batteries.

‘But I heard hydrogen is not safe, waste of energy, etc…’
Hydrogen fuel cells are not a savior to the planet, nor are they a waste of time as many critics would like us to believe. The real picture is likely in the middle. There is a balanced, forward-looking view of how hydrogen might expand the domain of electricity and we believe this is a future worth exploring.

Hydrogen as a solid is a meme we expect to grow in the months and years ahead.

Update on MOF commercialization efforts
Heading to Market with MOFs (August 2008)
Read my comment below for perspective on spectrum of solid hydrogen storage material options Carbon Nanotube breakthrough

Background links:
Chemical Engineering News MOF report from 2002 (Background article)
Researchers Demonstrate 7.5 wt% Hydrogen Storage in MOFs

Leading laboratories
-Omar Yaghi (pioneered MOFs research while University of Michigan) now a Professor at UCLA -Yaghi Presentation -We will highlight other leading laboratories in the US, Europe and Asia in the weeks ahead.

Image Sources: MOF-4 and MOF-5 from Omar Yaghi Laboratory

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. I just got a vision of solid hydrogen as the new gold. It would be interesting to see an economy run on a hydrogen standard, or ultimately electron standard.

    Awesome piece.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 03, 2008
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  2. Interesting post Mr. Golden. As I would not be at all surprised to learn you are already aware, there are also private and commercial researches into this very concept under way as well. I make mention of one such example at my own blog and request your considered response.

    On the general topic of hydrogen, I confess that I’ve never been convinced by those who advance the claim that “hydrogen isn’t a fuel like gasoline is”. Both have to be refined from some more complex entity, have special storage and handling requirements and must be radically altered to obtain Work from their stored Energy. While I am generally familiar with the distinctions between the two, I still question whether there exists any effective difference between them as fuels. Want to jump into that quagmire? :)

    Posted by: Will   October 05, 2008
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  3. Will—- your comment/question is appreciated! In fact, I’ve edited the post to address some of the issues.

    First—MOFs are only one option of solid h2 storage. Others include doped carbon nanotubes, boron and other novel compounds. Liquid storage systems are equally compelling. I’ll be sure to cover all of these in the weeks ahead.

    And yes – the Argonne effort was not really ‘new research’ as much as it was a critical step in enabling commercialization. Sorry to mislead. But characterization of MOFs is definitely an important step even if there weren’t new conclusions. So maybe I should change the article title!

    I went to your site (well done- it’s in my reader; and I used to live in Texas!)

    Yes, the product you’ve linked to- is a hydride. This is the most advanced solid state storage system on the market. MOFs (as you’ll see in new CENS article that I’ve added to the end of the post) is not yet a commercialized storage medium. But I’ve been following MOFs for a while and think we’re close to a transition point.

    Solid state storage has two general distinctions—storing H2 chemically (absorption) versus physically (adsorption). It’s easy to research this online- but basically you are looking to have a system that is low cost, low weight, high energy density/weight and (this is the key) works at low pressure.

    Metal hydrides (like those produced by ECD Ovonics) are a much more mature platform – but heavy and energy intensive. I think they will be displaced after an initial run as the leading commercial option.

    Taking all these into account- ‘physical’ adsorption (not chemical absorption) seems like a better longer term option. And I just think MOFs are the way forward. But that’s just in my humble opinion!

    Again, there are other ways to store H2 so I can’t pick winners! (liquid systems are also compelling; but I think don’t work for localized systems)

    And to your final point—- I think we’re in agreement!!

    Gasoline is an energy carrier too. Thanks to ancient sea faring microorganisms! It’s just holding chemical bonds assembled by something else. We blow it up- capture the energy. Yes, it’s a recoverable resource, but it’s still just a carrier.

    I don’t get caught up in the ‘carrier’ case against H2. Otherwise, why would we have ever advanced electricity?! Think of that case against electricity being made a century ago. The argument for H2 just falls flat.

    The real question is value. Is H2 a valuable form of electron energy? I believe yes.

    The real challenge is cost, not efficiencies. Efficiency has never mattered- again look to production/transmission of electricity and combustion of gasoline- both are horribly wasteful, but cheap. Cheap wins.

    I think H2 skeptics who use ‘efficiency’ are confusing physics for business. Cost is the key to commercialization.

    But if they do need an answer – at the end of the day – nanoscale catalysts change the nature of H2 production efficiencies. So the numbers they use for how wasteful h2 is—are based on weak assumptions of future capabilities.

    While I don’t think H2 saves the planet, I think we can make a lot of money around expanding the domain of electricity via chemical storage systems like H2. I think it (via chemical bonds) is a viable format for energy storage.

    And yes, I think it’s basically a ‘fuel’ like gasoline. At least in application.

    Thanks for your post Will. And I see that you read the piece on FutureBlogger. Note that I am Editor of The Energy Roadmap.com – a new domain blog within the FB network.

    Check our site out for other energy posts: www.theenergyroadmap.com

    Thanks Will—

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 06, 2008
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