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Australian researchers develop promising new approach to hydrogen storage


December 5, 2012

Australian scientists have developed a promising new approach to hydrogen storage

Australian scientists have developed a promising new approach to hydrogen storage

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Scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, are developing a novel way to store hydrogen that could help turn it into a viable portable fuel source. The research centers on using synthesized nanoparticles of the compound sodium borohydride (NaBH4 for those who love chemistry), which when encased inside nickel shells exhibits surprising and practical storage properties including the ability to reabsorb hydrogen and release it at much lower temperatures than previously observed, making it an attractive proposition for transport applications.

Hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that can be extracted from sources including natural gas, biomass, coal and water. One of the major problems in making it a viable alternative fuel is storage – the atoms are so tiny that they can easily escape from many kinds of containers. Also, hydrogen is more volatile than petrol. It can burn like blazes and can react badly to other substances. As no one wants to have a car that can burst into flames when you switch on the engine, this problem has drawn the attention of scientists around the world.

When researchers from the UNSW Materials Energy Research Laboratory synthesized nanoparticles of the sodium borohydride and encased these inside nickel shells, the findings took them by surprise. Borohydrides (including lithium and sodium compounds) are known to be effective storage materials, but it was believed that once the energy was released it could not be reabsorbed. As a result, there has been little focus on sodium borohydride.

The new findings indicate that by controlling the size and architecture of these structures, their properties can be made reversible. In other words, NaBH4 absorbs the hydrogen like a sponge and then releases it, making it useful for application in vehicles. In its bulk form, sodium borohydride requires temperatures above 550°C just to release hydrogen. It’s pretty much the same even on the nano-scale, but this core-shell nanostructure saw energy release happening at just 50°C, and significant release at 350°C.

Dr Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou from the School of Chemical Engineering at UNSW says this is a real breakthrough and his team hopes to have it commercialized in three to five years’ time. “No one has ever tried to synthesize these particles at the nanoscale because they thought it was too difficult, and couldn’t be done," he said. "We’re the first to do so, and demonstrate that energy in the form of hydrogen can be stored with sodium borohydride at practical temperatures and pressures.’’

The findings are published in the Journal ACS Nano.

Source: UNSW

About the Author
Leon Gettler An award winning author and freelance journalist with a strong background in newspapers, magazines and podcasts, Leon is passionately drawn to all things innovative and unknown with a deep interest in telecommunications, environmental technology and design. When not indulging his passion for reading and writing, he can be found memorizing lines immortalized by Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. All articles by Leon Gettler

When it comes to safety, hydrogen is far better than gasoline, precisely because it's a lightweight volatile gas. This was demonstrated rather spectacularly at the University of Miami by simulating two car fires: one created by a 1/16th inch puncture in a gasoline fuel line, the other by a leaking hydrogen connector. The experiment clearly demonstrated that fears about hydrogen as a transportation fuel are unfounded.

While the gasoline-fed fire eventually destroyed the second test vehicle, the hydrogen fire was over in less than two minutes and left the hydrogen-tank equipped test car virtually undamaged.



gas is safer then hydrogen in that it is much easier to store. If a gas tank was a strong and as large as a hydrogen tank it would be virtually indestructible. A rupture in a gas line could cause a leak and maybe under ideal conditions a small fire. A rupture in a hydrogen high pressure line is likely to be far more dangerous. That said, diesel is far safer then the 2 combined.

Michael Mantion

well not a new story, check this: http://www.hydrogenbattery.eu/

Viktor Szabó

Viktor, the "hydrogen battery" is very different than the technology outlined in this story and appears to be just on the spot battery powered electrolysis. So this is a new story about a new hydrogen storage solution.


Batteries would be better since the infrastructure for electricity is already proven (but only partially built) and can be delivered at the speed of light. Lithium batteries are over 95% efficient, to boot. I just don't see the practicality of this tech (other than in special cases?) aside from research.

We still have to get the (clean) energy to separate hydrogen from water in the first place, which brings up the major question: Why not focus on making THAT cheaper, that is, we should all be bent on developing machines that make ALL the parts for solar, batteries and themselves for like pennies on the dollar. Only through exponential growth, can solar become "real". And only if made very cheap, will there be (the necessary) hundreds of thousands of square miles of its installation jobs!

Robert Bernal

Not to discount the very good work being done here in nano particle science, the end result seems a bit misguided, and nickle shells, sound really expensive ($16K/t, about 3 X price of lithium). Same as using palladium; all these rare materials are running out. There is a whole bunch of stuff in this area: http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/materials-science/material-science-products.html?TablePage=16375039, but surely the objective is to find a dirt cheap material that prevents hydrogen from permeating through the tank. Has anyone thought of using a Lithium Hydride compound in a laminate of something strong and molecularly "tight" like graphene tubes... Cheap as dirt in terms of materials... just an idea.

Luke McNeilage

Well, Cella Energy in the UK has a similar technology which is ready for use, they are far ahead. It can store and handle hydrogen as a regular liquid fuel without big infrastructure modifications, it can be handled safely in the open air, at low pressures and ambient temperature:


David Vargas

Chicken Feathers no really cooked chicken feathers have proven to act at the nano scale to store hydrogen for cheap. saw it on a PBS special. I think the host of the show was alan alda from the mash series.


Do they ever consider how much the empty hydrogen container weighs? Hydrogen as a fuel for ground or air transportation is only marginally practical if have lots of real cheap electricity and plenty of water and only because electrical storage batteries are even worse.

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