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Researchers store hydrogen in a low-cost powder material, instead of highly pressurized tank

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Southwest Research Institute and The University of Texas at San Antonio are collaborating to improve storage materials for hydrogen fuels with a hybrid metal-carbon microstructure that combines both chemical and physical hydrogen storage mechanisms. The project is supported by a $125,000 grant from the Connecting through Research Partnerships (Connect) Program and will be led by Dr. Josh Mangum of SwRI’s Mechanical Engineering Division, UTSA Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Kathryn Mayer and UTSA Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Fang Xu.

Hydrogen fuel is an attractive alternative to fossil fuels because its emissions are free from carbon byproducts. SwRI is leading several multidisciplinary efforts evaluating hydrogen as a potential fuel for automobiles, power generation and even as a replacement for natural gas in homes.

“While hydrogen energy is very promising, several hurdles must be overcome,” Mangum said. “Some of the chief challenges are transportation and storage.”

Current methods of transporting and storing hydrogen involve compressing and liquifying hydrogen gas for transport and storage in cryogenic and high-pressure fuel tanks, which is an expensive process. Because hydrogen is highly flammable, transporting these tanks is inherently dangerous.

To address these challenges, SwRI and UTSA will create high surface area carbon (HiSAC) microstructure particles that can physically and chemically absorb the hydrogen, allowing it to be transported safely and cost-effectively.

“Instead of a highly pressurized tank, we plan to store hydrogen in a low-cost powder material,” Mangum explained. “The hydrogen will be chemically and physically absorbed and desorbed. One of our project goals is evaluating how much hydrogen can be stored in the powder since this will dictate the overall storage cost.”

The researchers will fabricate the HiSAC microstructures using the SwRI-developed High Power Impulse Plasma Source (HiPIPS) technology, which efficiently generates coatings using high-density, high-flux plasmas at low temperatures and atmospheric pressures. R&D Magazine recognized SwRI’s HiPIPS technology as one of the 100 most significant innovations of 2017.

UTSA will perform the analytical characterization of the microparticle structures. Mayer’s research team will perform a detailed structural characterization of the materials using state-of-the-art instrumentation in the Kleberg Advanced Microscopy Center. Xu’s team will modify HiSAC by magnesium deposition and test the materials’ hydrogen storage capacity using a customized unit.

“Previous research has demonstrated HSAC microstructures at high temperatures and low pressures, but HiPIPS allows us to form these materials at room temperature in a simple, scalable process,” Mangum said. “This process uses less energy than it takes to power an incandescent light bulb.”

SwRI’s Executive Office and UTSA’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise sponsor the Connect program, which offers grant opportunities to enhance greater scientific collaboration between the two institutions.

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