While most people can agree that electric and hybrid cars are a good idea, they haven’t taken off the way many people would expect, largely due to their price (I guess saving money on gasoline doesn’t take the edge off sticker shock). Solar-powered cars are another eco-friendly idea that seems poised to take off, though they might suffer the same setbacks as electric cars. Many scientists think that the real breakthrough in eco-fuels will be hydrogen, and despite previous advances in converting solar energy to hydrogen, it seems that the development of hydrogen-powered cars has largely stalled out — until now. Researchers at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council have made a discovery that stands to revolutionize the use of hydrogen as fuel. Their secret? Ammonia.
While a promising green fuel source, hydrogen isn’t without its drawbacks. It needs to be stored safely, both inside and outside of a vehicle, and in order to facilitate the widespread implementation of hydrogen fuel, we need a supporting infrastructure that could be pricey and complicated to develop. Scientists think that the recent breakthrough could solve both of those problems.
When scientists separate, or crack, ammonia, they’re left with three parts hydrogen and one part nitrogen. That process can be difficult and pricey, but the new technique relies on two chemical processes derived from sodium amide acting at the same time, which significantly reduces the cost of extracting hydrogen from ammonia (sodium amide is both abundant and affordable). This process can happen in-situ, or in the cars themselves as needed, which means that cars can store ammonia in plastic tanks, not unlike gas tanks. It also means that filling up those tanks doesn’t necessarily have to be much more complicated than going to a gas station.
Cars would need something called an ammonia decomposition reactor, which is about the size of a two-liter bottle of soda and would be able to crack enough hydrogen to run a conventional car. The scientists are also working on safety, particularly when it comes to preventing the emission of nitric oxide gases. They’re also creating a “low-power static demonstrator system” to further develop and refine these techniques. UK Minister for Universities and Sciences David Willetts believes that the breakthrough could help “solv[e] modern day transportation problems… [and] hugely contribute to our efforts to reduce our greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.”
Toyota and Honda both plan on selling hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in 2015 for just under $70,000. It will be interesting to see if the new development will cut those costs and appeal to more customers when it’s ready to be manufactured in vehicles.