New Hydrogen Fuel Technology an Oil Substitute?

It doesn’t seem so long ago that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were being touted as the way of the future. Even former President G.W. Bush pinned great hope on hydrogen as far back as 2006, when on Earth Day of that year, he explained it had the potential to wean the country from its petroleum dependency. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles had a rival, however, in battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

Britain’s Daily Telegraph, however, reported this week that a new technology from a UK company, Cella Energy – a spin off from Oxford University’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – could make hydrogen a strong contender once again. The innovation itself could have huge potential, because it could circumvent the need to build a new fueling infrastructure.  And this is an important advantage, since electric vehicles will require a brand new charging network  in order to support them at scale. In short, Cella Energy’s technology is positioned as a direct petroleum substitute. How so?

First off, hydrogen is an excellent energy store, which as The Telegraph article mentions,  has three times the energy density of gasoline. Secondly, it gives off zero carbon emissions at point of use. The trouble is, storing it so that it can be a useful fuel source requires either cooling it to -252 degrees C to liquefy it, or compressing it to extremely high pressure as a gas. In either case,  it is particularly hazardous and requires a lot of energy just to get it into these useful forms. Cella Energy gets around these issues using nano-structuring technology to encapsulate hydrides within polymers. Nice! This area of their web-site gets into what all that means, or you can watch the video below. But the bottom line? hydrogen can be made safe and convenient to store in open air at ambient temperatures and pressures. The nano-structures themselves can be formed into micro-beads, which are sufficiently small that they can be pumped and stored like liquids. This, Cella claims, allows them to be pumped by gas pumps into car fuel tanks, hence the ability to avoid designing and installing an entirely new fueling infrastructure. Bonus feature: it’s also less energy intensive to get the hydrogen into this useful form.

This video explains the process in greater detail:

As another bonus, we won’t necessarily have to reinvent the car engine either. While hydrogen released from the micro-beads could be used in fuel cell vehicles, it can also be used in a regular engine (with some modifications), thereby leveraging existing internal combustion engine development that’s been fine tuned over the last 100 years. The attraction here is firstly, no range-anxiety and secondly, drivers are familiar with (and generally seem to like) their cars and user experience.

Cella’s homepage claims costs should come in at $100 a barrel, making their product competitive with oil. The company also states their technology has applications for aircraft, rockets and even improved battery technology. Could the latter perhaps mean their innovation might be as much a complement to electric vehicle development as it is a rival? The company does not mention it in terms of vehicle battery development.

It all sounds great, maybe rather too good and digging deeper into Cella’s web-site, it appears they are still in proof of concept stage. So, the commercial viability and cost per barrel targets are presumably just projections at this point. Nevertheless, it appears to have exciting potential, so likely the technology battle for green transportation is not yet over. And maybe, G.W Bush was right about hydrogen’s future after all.

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.