Accidental Discovery: Could this be the Recovery of the Hydrogen Economy?

Khryss | Published 2017-08-27 13:11

Mind the flow, because things are about to drop.

Last January, when researchers at the US Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, were working on a new, high-strength alloy, they made the discovery -- however unintentional -- that a novel aluminium alloy started bubbling as it produced hydrogen when they poured water on it during testing.

This accidental breakthrough may be the first step towards the reviving of the struggling hydrogen economy. This could lead to propose a more convenient and (trans)portable source of hydrogen for fuel cells and other products, progressively altering the energy market and offering an alternative to batteries and liquid fuels (that's basically providing an alternative to battery power, tbH).

Take note that this does not normally happen to aluminium; it usually immediately oxidizes when exposed to water, creating a protective barrier that hinders any further reaction. However, this certain alloy continually makes a reaction with water in a highly unusual way.

Hydrogen, however touted as a clean, green fuel, nonetheless is demanding and arduous to store and move around because of its bulk, making it difficult for transportation and pressurization. Anthony Kucernak of the Imperial College London, who studies fuel cells, says that the important aspect of the approach is that it lets one make very compact systems. "That would be very useful for systems which need to be very light or operate for long periods on hydrogen, where the use of hydrogen stored in a cylinder is prohibitive."

This novel alloy is made of a dense powder of micron-scale grains of aluminium and one or more other metals altered in a certain nanostructure. Fortuitously, adding water to the whole thing generates lots of aluminium oxide or hydroxide and hydrogen. Team leader Scott Grendahl claims that it does it to nearly 100 percent efficiency in less than 3 minutes. Furthermore, this newly discovered material provides at least an order of magnitude more energy than lithium batteries of the same weight, which can remain stable and ready for use indefinitely. Wow, right? This could actually power everything from laptops to buses and cars.

Robert Steinberger-Wilckens, director of a fuel cell programme at the University of Birmingham, cites, "In principle, the process should work." And if it does work out, the powder could also be used as the raw material for 3D printing. Additionally, further proposals lead toward small air or ground robots that use their structure as fuel -- an idea now being considered by the army -- as this could be useful for burning themselves up at the end to leave no trace, for one-way intelligence-gathering missions.

Finally... a solution.

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