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Not just a lot of hot air

A breakthrough has been made by UK scientists in the quest to make hydrogen a viable fuel-source for cars. Developments by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have been labelled ‘game-changing’ by experts.

Until now hydrogen has been a tricky source of energy. Volatile and difficult to contain as well as economically impractical, the solution to harnessing hydrogen has, until now, eluded experts. But scientists believe using ammonia in storage will remove the dangers and reduce overheads.

Many believe hydrogen has the potential to be the solution to fossil fuels, producing clean energy in high quantities. And the science behind these latest findings is surprisingly simple – ammonia is made from one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen. Ammonia can be safely stored, and then catalysts used to extract the hydrogen.

Professor Bill David, chief coordinator of the STFC research team at the ISIS Neutron Source, said: “Our approach is as effective as the best current catalysts but the active material, sodium amide, costs pennies to produce. We can produce hydrogen from ammonia ‘on demand’ effectively and affordably.

“Few people think of ammonia as a fuel but we believe that it is the natural alternative to fossil fuels. For cars, we don’t even need to go to the complications of a fuel-cell vehicle.

The findings place UK research at the forefront of new, sustainable energy sources and, and could help hit global targets of halving greenhouse gases by 2050.

Representatives of STFC were keen to add that additional production of ammonia is technically straightforward, and the existing infrastructure for ammonia production could be easily extended.

Importantly there has been interest from electric car manufacturers such as Nissan and Tesla who are keen to harness energy from hydrogen sources in their next generation of cars.

While there are high hopes for these models paving the way in affordable, sustainable car travel, there are problems. Vehicle range has always been an issue, and now the additional worry of hydrogen provision is also a concern. Hydrogen currently needs to be at extremely high pressures, prompting some to dismiss its as dangerous.

Pressed on the matter, Professor David MacKay FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said: “We believe that there is no single solution to the challenges we face in decarbonising the fuel chain, but this research suggests that ammonia based technologies are worth further consideration and may well play an important part in the future energy landscape.

So far so good. But, for now, it seems this is one for the future as opposed to one for the present.


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