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.

2 responses

  1. What happens to the polymers once the fuel cells do their thing? Are they toxic? What do they decompose into? Sounds like a cool idea but maybe creating other problems?

  2. I  have been with the military for more than a decade. It’s funny the military talks about equal opportunity but why does the military has to have GM vehicles? Oh i forgot, they were one of the companies that were bailed out! then a conspiracy car crash of a drive by wire Lexus in California took place, very interesting that out of all the global locations in the world that this Lexus drive by wire issue took place in California! reports of drive by wire Lexus around the world has not occurred yet. I feel they should make the switch to Toyota, which is more American than GM. Like most military ways, the military has no common sense.  If soldiers were motivated to use common sense, they will question almost every order that they are given.

    Traditional American Companies seem to always look for residual income; when’s the last time have you heard of 400,000 miles on a GM vehicle?

    Say this was a successful test bench. then it goes up to congress and some crazy rule is developed that only hydrogen fuel cell cars are to run in Hawaii. that island will have 100% GM cars that will probably last 100,000 miles! I know what I would do, I would stick the fuel hydrogen cell motor in a better designed car in a Japanese vehicle. American vehicles; majority of them are just that ugly; it’s a good thing they don’t last that long!


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