Jeff Herman
Nov 10, 2011

Hydrogen fuel and aluminum alloy combo may be the energy savior

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity."—Harlan Ellison


 If we could figure out how to run our automobiles, our houses, and other random electronics on the power of stupidity, the energy crisis would definitely be a thing of the past. Alas, the technology that can siphon stupidity into a useable energy source is not likely to occur within our lifetimes.


Hydrogen, which could very well be the future of clean renewable energy, is another story. The use of hydrogen fuel is nothing new. Scientists and innovators have attempted to utilize this flammable element for centuries. In fact, over two hundred years ago, Francois Isaac de Rivaz developed the first hydrogen engine prototype; however, as a viable source of fuel, hydrogen was largely ignored.


People fear hydrogen. Hydrogen is explosive and the horrific imagery of the Hindenburg remains strong in our collective consciousness. The joke and/or myth repeated over the last twenty years, which related driving a hydrogen-fueled car to having your own personal nuclear bomb; also didn’t do much to dispel any fears.


An explosion in a GM plant in 2010 illustrated that the use of hydrogen fuel is not without its risks; however, proponents suggest that the benefits of hydrogen fuel are far greater than any shortcomings. Hydrogen fuel was also a very costly fuel source, especially compared to the cheaper fossil fuel alternatives, although everything comes at a price. 


The amount of environmental damage caused by fossil fuel use is insurmountable. The present environmental/energy crisis in which we find ourselves has led to a resurgence of interest in hydrogen fuel and the development of hydrogen fuel cells. Fuel cells can successfully catalyze chemical reactions to produce useable hydrogen to power cars and other machinery; however, due to expensive materials, fragile design, inefficient chemical reactivity, and very cumbersome hydrogen storage options; the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells has remained an elusive goal.  


Researchers from Washington State University and University of Texas –Dallas, have discovered an aluminum-titanium alloy that could improve both the development and storage of useable hydrogen fuel as well as greatly decrease the cost of fuel cells. Fuel cells largely use expensive metals such as palladium and platinum as a catalyst to activate hydrogen into a useable energy source. Aluminum on the other hand is quite cheap. Aluminum does not react with hydrogen; however, when it is infused with patches of titanium, efficient pockets of catalytic activity can lead to the increased production of useable elemental hydrogen.    Aluminum also provides an efficient hydrogen storage medium. 


The researchers suggest that by creating aluminum-hydride, a stable molecule of one aluminum atom to three hydrogen atoms, effective hydrogen storage could be maintained. Simply raising the temperature of the aluminum-hydride would be enough to release the hydrogen.   Although this research is still in its infancy; the use of aluminum may be the key to bringing hydrogen fuel cells to a much broader consumer market; an important step in ending the energy crisis. If nothing else, maybe this will give us more impetus to recycle are used soda cans.   Related Article: Aluminum alloy overcomes obstacles on the path to making hydrogen a practical fuel source