One of the problems with using hydrogen powered cars is how do you keep their fuel cells supplied with a ready source of hydrogen? The Warwick researchers believe that much of the necessary infrastructure already exists - the new technology can be fitted to pre-existing filling stations who will then use it to produce hydrogen from the normal pre-existing natural gas pipeline supply system. To do this however you need to resolve a number of problems. In particular how to produce the hydrogen from that natural gas in a confined space, using a simple automated remotely controlled process. Obviously very large scale industrial processes already exist to produce hydrogen from natural gas but these technologies cannot be scaled down to compact size needed to be practical in a filling station context and the costs of using these processes would be prohibitive.
The new University of Warwick research solves these problems by a combination of innovative heat exchange technology, novel ways of managing and using heat and pressure within a reactor, novel compact plated reactor technology, and the use of new coated nanocrystaline catalysts to greatly increase the efficiency of the reactions. These techniques will allow the researchers to develop a reactor around the size of three average office desks which can be used in the confined space available on pre-existing petrol station forecourts and which will produce hydrogen at a cost effective rate and without any emissions problems.
The research will draw on technology developed by University of Warwick Process Technology Group researcher Dr Ashok Bhattacharya, and the following research partners: Chart Heat Exchangers Ltd in Wolverhampton, England; France's Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique; Norway's Foundation for Technical and Industrial Research in Strindveien (SINTEF); The National Research Council of Italy; and catalyst specialists Dytech in Sheffield, England.
Another advantage of the technology proposed by the Warwick team is that process employs a number of stages at which hydrogen reaches different rates of purity. This is ideal, as different sorts of fuel cell will require different mixes of hydrogen. Thus the technology proposed can in one reactor simultaneously produce what one might describe as 2, 3 and 4 star hydrogen!
The researchers are also considering using the technology to carry out hydrogen production within car engines and also as a possible replacement for large industrial hydrogen production processes.