MIT Research Could Lead to Improved Hydrogen Storage

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Sow-Hsin Chen, left, and Yun Liu SM ’03, PhD ’05, right.

Hydrogen has, for a long time, been considered by many a potential alternative to fossil fuels such as gasoline for cars, but it has to be stored as a liquid under extremely high pressures ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 psi (pounds per square inch), and in a very expensive container which has to be insulated to keep as much outside heat as possible away from the hydrogen it contains.

The alternative to high-pressure storage is the hydrogen has to be cooled to and permanently kept at -423° Fahrenheit by a very energy-intensive refrigerator. This also requires very heavy insulation.

The more heat the hydrogen is exposed to, the more it expands, and as hydrogen and gases, in general, expand, their pressure increases too, and this increases the likelihood of the storage tank exploding or leaking.

The higher the pressure, the stronger the tank has to be to withstand that pressure. Hydrogen atoms are so small that they escape from many types of containers very easily by slipping out through tiny holes in them, and a consequence of that is even tiny inconspicuous leaks are a major problem.

In general, when storing any liquid or gas under pressure, leaks are much harder to contain because the high pressure inside the storage container forces particles through small holes that something under low pressure would not leak through.

MIT researchers say that they may have found a way to store it using charcoal (activated carbon) with an incorporated platinum catalyst (which suggests that there could be a potential sustainability and cost problem, although this is still a step closer to something potentially better that does not need platinum).

Hydrogen atoms will actually bond to the sponge-like charcoal material, making it possible to store it at ambient pressure and room temperature in tanks. Normally, the problem with this concept is bonding the hydrogen atoms to the charcoal tightly enough that they don’t leak away, but at the same time, not too tightly because they will need to be released for use later.

This is an unusual technological advancement and a sign of out-of-the-box thinking. I will keep an eye out for future advancements of this idea.

Photo Credit: MIT News Office


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Nicholas Brown

Has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is:

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