New ceramic membranes may help hydrogen replace gasoline as auto fuel
If hydrogen fuel cells are ever to replace gasoline engines in cars, they will need a cheap source of high-purity hydrogen — and Argonne technology could provide one.
A team led by Balu Balachandran of Argonne's Energy Technology Division has developed a ceramic membrane that can extract hydrogen from methane, the chief component of natural gas. The United States has abundant natural gas resources, but until now the process of obtaining hydrogen from natural gas has been difficult.
"Ceramic membranes make possible the widespread use of hydrogen," Balachandran said. "Just as conventional cars need gas stations, fuel cells will need an infrastructure to support them. Ceramic membranes could eliminate the need for costly refineries — they are small enough and efficient enough to have one at every gas station."
The membranes are made of a composite of iron, oxygen, cobalt and strontium. The material is so dense that only electrons and individual ions can pass through it, which is why membranes can produce such pure hydrogen.
According to Balachandran, the membranes could also provide an economical source of other chemicals necessary for synthetic fuels and fertilizer.
Ceramic membranes could be a key development in DOE's "Vision 21" program, which seeks to develop highly efficient power technologies that discharge no pollutants.
Though the technology is still in its infancy, Balachandran is pleased with ceramic membranes' prospects.
"We have proven that this can work in principle," he said. "But we need to meet several engineering challenges to develop ceramic membranes for the marketplace. If we can meet those challenges, we could see this technology on the market within five to six years."
The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory conducts basic and applied scientific research across a wide spectrum of disciplines, ranging from high-energy physics to climatology and biotechnology. Since 1990, Argonne has worked with more than 600 companies and numerous federal agencies and other organizations to help advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for the future. Argonne is operated by the University of Chicago as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's national laboratory system. — Chad Boutin