Researchers at the University of Warwick’s Process Technology Group are leading a programme called ‘Hydrofueler’ to connect petrol stations to the natural gas supply to fuel hydrogen powered vehicles. The 2.8 million Euro EC-funded three-year research programme has already drawn interest from oil producers and car makers.
One of the problems with using hydrogen powered cars is the difficulty of keeping their fuel cells supplied with a ready source of hydrogen. The Warwick researchers believe that much of the necessary infrastructure already exists to solve this problem - the new technology can be fitted at existing filling stations who will then use the technology to produce hydrogen from the regular natural gas pipeline supply system.
To do this, however, a number of problems need to be resolved. In particular, how to produce the hydrogen from the natural gas in a confined space, using a simple, automated, remotely controlled process.
Obviously, large-scale industrial processes already exist to produce hydrogen from natural gas, but these technologies cannot be scaled down to the compact size needed to be practical, and also the cost of using these processes is prohibitive.
The University of Warwick researchers solved these problems with a combination of innovative heat exchange, technology, novel ways of managing and using heat and pressure within a reactor, novel plated reactor technology, and the use of new coated nanocrystalline catalysts to greatly increase the efficiency of the reactions. These techniques will allow the researchers to develop a reactor about the size of three average office desks. While this is not exactly small, it is small enough to be sited in the confined space available on existing petrol station forecourts and will produce hydrogen at a cost effective rate and without any emission 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 of Woverhampton, UK, France’s Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique, The Foundation for Technical and Industrial Research in Trindveien, Norway, the National Research Council of Italy and catalyst specialists Dytech in Sheffield, UK.
Another advantage of the technology proposed by the Warwick team is that the process employs a number of stages at which hydrogen reaches different stages of purity. This is ideal, as different types of fuel cell will require different mixes of hydrogen. As a result, the technology proposed can in one reactor simultaneously produce what could be described as two, three and four 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.