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Tina Casey headshot

US Army Pursues "Instant" Renewable Hydrogen With New Nanopowder

By Tina Casey

Scientists in the Army Research Laboratory have developed a formula for plucking renewable hydrogen fuel out of practically any water based liquid, from leftover coffee and energy drinks to, well, just about anything else. Use your imagination!

Under ordinary circumstances, research like this could wandering for years through the "Valley of Death" that separates laboratory proof from marketplace profitability. However, in this case the labwork looks so promising that the Army is already looking around for a licensee to kick the technology into commercial development.

Renewable Hydrogen From Just About Any Kind Of Liquid

So, why is the US Army interested in renewable hydrogen? As a matter of fact, the US Army is climate-aware and it has developed a triple bottom line perspective that includes sustainable energy, with renewable hydrogen being yet another manifestation.

For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is a cheap, abundant, zero-emission fuel but it does not have a standalone existence in nature. Currently the main source of hydrogen is fossil natural gas, but there some renewable pathways, too, such as biogas.

Another promising, renewable option is electrolysis, the process of "splitting" water with an electrical current generated by renewable energy.

The Army Research Laboratory is on still another track. Instead of splitting water with electricity, ARL researchers have come up with a formula that uses an engineered, powder-like form of aluminum to trigger a reaction that releases hydrogen.

The ability of aluminum to spark a hydrogen-producing reaction in water is well known. However, under normal conditions aluminum quickly develops a protective layer that prevents the release of hydrogen.

Until now, the workaround has involved breaking up the protective layer by adding toxic or expensive substances to the mix, or by applying an additional energy source.

The new breakthrough involves engineering a new form of aluminum that ARL is calling a "nanogalvanic structured aluminum based material." It can touch off a reaction at room temperature, without the need for any kind of exterior power source or any other additive.

The reaction takes place in under three minutes at almost 100 percent efficiency, a vast improvement over other methods that can take hours and achieve only 50 percent efficiency (to see how robust the reaction is, check out the ARL video on YouTube).

As another advantage over previous methods, the byproducts of the reaction are only heat and an inert residue.

According to ARL the reaction can occur with "virtually any" water based liquid including "naturally scavenged water, coffee, energy drink, urine" and more.

As an additional bonus, the new powder can be 3-D printed on an as-needed basis, which could simplify storage and other supply chain logistics. With the printing equipment on site, the aluminum could even be scavenged from disabled vehicles or other derelict equipment.

But Is It Practical?

The renewable hydrogen breakthrough was one of those accidental discoveries that could have a significant impact:
During routine materials experimentation at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, a team of researchers observed a bubbling reaction when adding water to a nano-galvanic aluminum-based powder.

The reaction surprised the researchers, but they soon considered its potential implications for future power and energy applications.

The potential for practical applications looks promising. Last year, ARL calculated that 220 kilowatts of energy could be produced by one kilogram of the new aluminum powder, or double that if heat production is taken into account.

They also demonstrated that the renewable hydrogen from the reaction could be captured and used in a fuel cell to power small electronic equipment.

Why Renewable Hydrogen?

As for why the US Army is especially interested in renewable energy, that's become clear in recent years. The ability to scavenge energy from local sources provides for more secure and effective operations in the field, compared to the conventional, expensive and dangerous practice of shipping fuel to overseas bases.

Last year, the ARL research team found that the reaction is especially rapid and efficient when the liquid in question is urine. ARL research team leader Scott Grendahl explains one particular application, for reconnaissance teams:

These teams are out for a short number of days, three to five days, and a lot of that depends not only on their food supplies, but on how long their supplies last in terms of their equipment and right now that stems from lithium batteries. If we can recharge those batteries, they can stay out longer.

Space exploration provides the inspiration for recycling and reclaiming energy sources:

In space, astronauts recycle waste water and urine because drinking water is a precious commodity. For Soldiers in austere environments, there are many precious commodities. Power and energy is becoming increasingly important to run communications and electronics gear for away teams, which can't be resupplied.

If all goes according to schedule the next steps will occur rapidly. This week the Army has planned to open the process of finding a vendor to license the patented powder, with the expectation that interested parties will submit their applications in September.

Photo (cropped): via US Army ResearchLaboratory.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey