Hydrogen Cars Research Picks Up Speed

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Rice University Mechanical Engineering Professor Boris Yakobson

As gas prices are finally stabilizing, alternative fuel ideas may return to the back burner. But at least one professor is making strides in one of the more elusive energy sources, hydrogen. The key is trapping enough of the gas to meet Department of Energy standards, and storing the energy at temperatures that make every day use viable.

When hydrogen burns in an engine with oxygen the output is pure, clean water. This makes it one of the most carbon neutral fuels to be found, however trapping the hydrogen, as it's quite a dense gas has been the problem. Several prototypes and early model hydrogen cars have been on the roads for a couple decades now, and many automakers are slowly experimenting with the prospect of zero emissions cars, but a method for harnessing hydrogen safely and efficiently enough for mass production has still eludes automakers.

Rice University Mechanical Engineering Professor Boris Yakobson has a fuel cell model that is in the concept phase now, but it exceeds the Department of Energy's specifications. The DOE says at least 6 percent of hydrogen needs to be stored to power a car. Yakobson believes he can harness at least 8 percent using a relatively simple 'grapevine'-like structure. He proposes using a fuel cell based on "a particular form of carbon as a building element. Then in addition to this we can also introduce another element calcium," he says. "Calcium has the special property of attracting hydrogen molecules."

The most important element of this structure is its stability, allowing hydrogen to be stored at higher temperatures. Right now the only way to store hydrogen so it's usable is at sub-zero temperatures. With Yakobson's latest model, temperature would not matter, making it a longer-term viable solution for future hydrogen car manufacturers.

This is just a concept idea from Yakobson and his team but some initial tests show it's a promising option and takes us a step closer to getting longer-lasting hydrogen cars on the road.

For the full story and more on the 'grapevine' structure, listen to the radio version at KUHF.