A Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed a new method for storing large amounts of hydrogen at room temperature using a version of the super-material graphene. Reportedly his material is inexpensive, easy to produce, and can store almost twice the amount of hydrogen than the U.S. Department of Energy’s ultimate target of 7.5% by weight at room temperature.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the widespread introduction of hydrogen-based vehicles is the fact that storing it with current technologies requires huge amounts of effort for little reward. Hydrogen itself is such a low-energy-density substance that you have to find ways to compress gigantic amounts of it into very small spaces to make it usable.
Up to now the available technologies were either putting it in a tank under very high pressure (read: explosive), or cooling it to incredibly low temperatures (like a couple hundred degrees celsius below freezing) and turning it into a liquid and then putting it in a tank (read: waste of energy). You might see how neither of these are really the optimal solution to storing hydrogen.
The holy grail of hydrogen storage would be a material that can collect huge amounts of it in a lightweight and compact form at room temperature—getting around the masses of energy needed to simply store it in the first place.
Well, now a bright student has figured out how to do just that—and then some. Javad Rafiee is a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer. To come up with his solution, he used a combination of “mechanical grinding, plasma treatment, and annealing” to maximize graphene’s hydrogen storage capacity. The nanoscopic graphene molecules are arranged in a “chain-link” fence structure providing an extremely high surface area for the hydrogen to cling to. Couple that with graphene’s earth-shatteringly low density and you have the holy grail of hydrogen storage.
Javad recently won a $30,000 student prize for his work, but I’m thinking that’s just the beginning for this whiz kid. I’m sure there are plenty of other hurdles to overcome in this quest, such as how to get the hydrogen in and out of the structure quickly and how to scale it up and commercialize it, but, nonetheless, it’s exciting.