July 2006

NSF Funds “Basic Science” Hydrogen Storage Project

Dr. Darlene Slattery
Darlene Slattery

A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is giving FSEC researcher Darlene Slattery “a great opportunity to work on something that is just plain good science!”

Slattery is referring to the project called “Nanocrystalline Al-Mg Alloys for Hydrogen Storage,” a three-year, $300,000 effort she’s heading up with Dr. Fereshteh Ebrahimi of the University of Florida to look at the use of metal hydrides for hydrogen storage. Actually, FSEC researchers have been investigating hydrogen storage possibilities for more than 15 years, but most of the projects have been U.S. Department of Energy-funded work that has focused on near-term technologies. This new project gives Slattery and other researchers the opportunity to work on the fundamental studies that need to be done.

“What I’m most excited about with this project,” she explained, “is that it deals with such an important subject. The big picture is the use of fuel cell-driven vehicles that many people consider the future of transportation in the U.S., but we’ll be doing the basic science and studies that hopefully will lead to a better understanding of how hydrogen is stored in metal hydrides. The push to develop a working system has led to ignoring the fundamental lab work necessary to develop a system with the necessary characteristics, and this NSF grant gives us the opportunity to do that important work.”

The storage of hydrogen on-board a vehicle is one of the biggest hurdles to the use of fuel cells in transportation. Four general solutions are being considered by researchers to solve the storage issues: cryogenic storage of liquid hydrogen, high-pressure storage of gaseous hydrogen, storage of a chemical that can be re-formed to hydrogen, and reversible solid-state material storage systems such as metal hydrides.

photo of Darlene Slattery injecting hydrogen sample into gas chromatograph equipment
FSEC chemist Darlene Slattery uses the gas chromatograph to analyze the purity of hydrogen.

It’s the use of a particular class of hydrides called complex hydrides that may be the most promising technology for use in proton exchange membrane fuel cells, the most suitable type of fuel cell for use in cars.

The NSF grant will allow researchers to fabricate nanocrystalline magnesium alloys (Al-Mg) in the form of powder via electrodeposition, characterize the microstructural evolution during hydrogenation and dehydrogenation, and then design an alloy powder with optimized characteristics. Dr. Slattery is an expert on hydrides and Dr. Ebrahimi is an expert in electrodeposition and alloy formation, so the teaming of the two project leaders and their students should provide answers to many questions regarding the advantages of using nanostructured materials. Slattery noted that while FSEC staff have looked at alanates before, this new work involves nanocrystalline materials – materials with very tiny particles with a shorter path to the hydrogen, giving them a faster rate of releasing hydrogen for the fuel cell.

Slattery explained that she hoped this lab work will help develop a potential material for hydrogen storage that has significant impact on the development of fuel-cell-driven cars. “But we’re not at the stage here of talking about building cars, we’re talking about the science behind the processes to make it all happen. We’re going to be learning a great deal about nanocrystalline materials and their suitability for hydrogen storage while we train graduate and undergraduate students on these materials. The automotive industry is looking toward the time when their vehicles can contain enough hydrogen to go 300 miles and release the hydrogen to the fuel cell. What we’re going to be doing in our labs are important first steps toward a potential storage solution for the vehicles of tomorrow. It really is a terrific opportunity for FSEC.”

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