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Why hydrogen powder can change everything

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Researchers from Australia have discovered a novel method for storing hydrogen… in powder form. The outcome is a true revolution in the transport and storage of this gas.

Currently, the energy transition, especially in the automotive and transportation industries, is mostly dependent on lithium-ion battery technology. Each year, this technology advances, but it still has disadvantages compared to fossil fuels.

“Charging the battery can take up to several hours, the overall capacity is limited, and varies based on the ambient temperature or the total number of battery cycles. Not to mention the dangers posed by the extraordinary reactivity of lithium in automobile accidents, such as fire outbreaks.

Why the powderification of hydrogen is a game-changer

Hydrogen has been touted for decades as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. On paper, if we consider the user experience, hydrogen can be utilized similarly to gasoline or diesel. While providing a far better energy density than fossil fuels or lithium-ion batteries.

However, as you may have observed, hydrogen-powered automobiles are not yet widespread. There is no denying that the technology has its share of problems to solve. Currently, 90% of hydrogen is derived from fossil fuel reserves, which is not optimal given the critical need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

Obviously, it is also possible to create hydrogen by separating water molecules. However, the process is still extremely energy inefficient. This translates into enormous energy losses in order to store very little hydrogen. In addition, the hydrogen atom is so tiny that it can diffuse and pass through virtually any substance.

The gas is also known to be hazardous in the presence of oxygen, as it can spontaneously burst and do significant damage. Therefore, safely and affordably storing hydrogen is also one of the obstacles that will determine the market introduction of this type of vehicle. Currently, research is concentrated on developing costly segmented tanks.

The technology is also intriguing for cheaper hydrogen extraction

Researchers at Deakin University appear to have identified a significantly cheaper and more intriguing method of production and storage: the transformation of hydrogen into powder by utilizing the principles of chemical mechanics. The objective here is to initiate chemical reactions utilizing mechanical forces as opposed to heat, light, or electrical potential differences.

This implies that far less energy is required. To convert their hydrogen into powder, the researchers placed the gas in a cylindrical container containing steel balls and boron nitride, a substance known for its absorption properties. The chamber’s spinning transforms the steel balls into pestles. By pulverizing boron nitride, the hydrogen is eventually trapped in the powder, which may then be utilized as-is.

“Currently, the petrochemical sector employs a cryogenic technique to remove hydrogen from crude oil,” the researchers add. Several gases are present in this oil, so to separate and purify them, they are cooled until they become liquid and then heated. The gases evaporate at varying temperatures, which is how they are separated.

In comparison, the mechanical-chemical approach developed by the researchers takes only 10% of the energy currently utilized to make the gas. This equates to a few tens of pennies for tens of hours of “pulverization.” Presently, scientists are at the earliest stages of developing this separation and storage technique. Their next objective is to demonstrate that hydrogen-free boron nitride may be recycled indefinitely.

Despite the fact that these developments are encouraging, hydrogen has little chance of becoming a viable alternative to electric vehicles in the near to medium term. The ecosystem of rechargeable and battery-powered automobiles is simply too mature in comparison. Hydrogen could potentially be used in industries such as freight transport, aviation, and short- or long-distance public transportation due to these developments (trains, buses…).

Nedim Husomanovic

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