Purdue researchers develop a better hydrogen fuel cell process

June 23, 2010

Purdue researchers develop a better hydrogen fuel cell process Researchers at Purdue University have developed hydrogen fuel cell technology that doesn’t require a catalyst.  Instead the fuel cell harnesses both hydrolysis and thermolysis or hydrothermolysis.  It uses aluminum borane and water to generate the hydrogen needed for fuel cells. 

Purdue’s process was developed by Arvind Varma, R. Games Slayter Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and head of the School of Chemical Engineering, former Purdue doctoral student Moiz Diwan, Purdue postdoctoral researcher Hyun Tae Hwang and doctoral student Ahmad Al-Kukhun.  It uses aluminum borane which contains a very high hydrogen content for solid materials of 19.6 percent hydrogen, “a high weight percentage that means a relatively small quantity and volume of the material are needed to store large amounts of hydrogen”.

After extensive testing, the scientists have determined that a “77 percent concentration of Borane was ideal for maximum hydrogen release” using their new process.  Normally, to get hydrogen from the solution you would have to heat it to “170 degrees Celsius, or more than 330 degrees Fahrenheit”.  Under the Purdue process you only have to heat the material to “85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit)” which is the normal operating temperature of the cars designed for fuel cells. 

The process requires maintaining the reactor at a pressure of less than 200 pounds per square inch, far lower than the 5,000 psi required for current hydrogen-powered test vehicles that use compressed hydrogen gas stored in tanks.

Purdue has filed for a patent on this technology and expects that this technology can also be used to power small electronics. 

"This is the first process to provide exceptionally high hydrogen yield values at near the fuel-cell operating temperatures without using a catalyst, making it promising for hydrogen-powered vehicles," [Varma] said. "We have a proof of concept."

In order for this process to be marketable, the scientists still have a few kinks to iron out.  First, they have to scale up the reactor so that cars be able to go 350 miles without a recharge.  Second, they want to develop a method of turning the process waste back into aluminum borane. 

As with so many breakthroughs, the challenge comes in the scaling of the process.

 

(Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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