19 February 2003
Fill 'er up with regular, premium, or natural gas?
A new "hydrofueler" will connect filling stations to the normal natural gas supply to fuel hydrogen-powered vehicles, said researchers at the University of Warwick's Warwick Process Technology Group.
Now the big guys have taken an interest as Exxon Mobil and BMW are looking at the 2.8-million-euro, European Commission-funded, three-year research program.
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 said they believe much of the necessary infrastructure already exists—the new technology can fit to preexisting filling stations, which will then use it to produce hydrogen from the normal preexisting 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. Large-scale industrial processes already exist to produce hydrogen from natural gas, but these technologies so far cannot scale down to the compact size needed to be practical in a filling station.
The new University of Warwick research solves these problems by a combination of heat exchange technology, managing and using heat and pressure within a reactor, compact plated reactor technology, and new coated nanocrystaline 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, which can be used in the confined space available on preexisting petrol station forecourts and which will produce hydrogen at a cost-effective rate and without any emissions problems.
Another advantage of the technology the Warwick team proposed is that process employs a number of stages at which hydrogen reaches different rates of purity. This is ideal, as different sorts of fuel cells will require different mixes of hydrogen. Thus, the technology proposed can in one reactor simultaneously produce what one might describe as two-, three-, and four-star hydrogen.
The researchers are also considering using the technology to carry out hydrogen production within car engines and as a possible replacement for large industrial hydrogen production processes.
The research will draw on technology developed by University of Warwick Process Technology Group researcher Dr. Ashok Bhattacharya and 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; The National Research Council of Italy; and catalyst specialist Dytech in Sheffield, England.
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