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Hydrogen Fuel Tech Just Got A Major Boost

Irina Slav

Hydrogen as a fuel has been drawing a lot of attention ever since the world decided to start weaning itself off fossil fuels. However, after years of research, hydrogen fuelled vehicles remain a niche market due to one main problem: the price of the fuel system. Now, a team of researchers claims they have solved this problem and we could see hydrogen vehicles cheaper than EVs.

The team, from Lancaster University, says they had discovered a new material—Kubas manganese Hydride-1—that can make hydrogen fuel tanks for vehicles a lot more compact and cheaper while at the same time increasing their energy density.

"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 than lithium ion batteries as well as providing a much longer range -- potentially enabling journeys up to around four or five times longer between fill-ups," the lead researcher, Professor David Antonelli, said.

A fuel system that is five times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries certainly sounds like a game changer. It is these batteries, after all, that swell the prices of electric cars and are perhaps the biggest obstacle to faster mass adoption, along with range. Now, Professor Antonelli’s team claims they can solve both the cost and the range problems with one solution. It sounds like something that’s almost too good to be true, and maybe for the time being it is.

The great thing about hydrogen as a fuel is that it is the most abundant element in the universe and its conversion into energy does not as a rule result in harmful by-products. Like batteries, the fuel can then be used to power vehicles or for energy storage. In fact, a 2018 study from a German analytical firm said surplus electricity produced by solar and wind farms can be easily converted into hydrogen and stored or fed into hydrogen fueling stations. It is here that the third problem of hydrogen lies. There are simply no extensive hydrogen fuel station networks.

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Truth be told this is probably the easiest problem to solve: it just requires money and dedication. Indeed, two years ago, the Hydrogen Council was launched: a group involving several leading automakers as well as Shell and Total, seeking ways to make hydrogen more commercially viable. The council allocated $1.4 billion on the development of energy storage and fuel cell project development until 2020, and has high hopes for the future.

The problem is that meanwhile, billions are being poured into battery-powered storage systems and cars. For now, batteries definitely have the upper hand, and their makers aren’t standing still, constantly working to improve efficiency rates and cost. Hydrogen backers will need to put in much effort and coin into catching up, and there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed as the battery momentum might prove to be simply too strong.

This, however, does not mean hydrogen as a fuel has no future at all. On the contrary, alternatives to the dominant energy storage method will always be welcome if only as a means of avoiding putting all eggs in one basket in an increasingly renewable future.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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