Full house for Speaking of Research

Not a seat to spare at 16 Queen Square.  While the Bridge School of Bath enjoyed their usual bridge-night in the Lonsdale Room, and the Elwin ran out of chairs for a meeting of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to hear Tony Coverdale talk about reducing Submarine Accidents, the audience for BRLSI’s Speaking of Research series just fitted into Duncan to hear a brilliant presentation on Nanoengineered Materials for Hydrogen Storage, a real eye-opener for those who despair of replacing fossil fuels.
Inspired by Richard Feynman’s visionary work at Caltec, nanoengineering today reaches into countless disciplines.  In the very same week that two University of Manchester scientists, Andre Geim and Constantin Novoselov share their Nobel prize for the discovery of Graphene, a flat hexagonal form of carbon reminiscent of buckeyballs and nanotubes, three young researchers at the University of Bath gave us an uplifting insight into the opportunities for hydrogen storage, using nanoparticles of different kinds, including indeed this same graphene, imagined as ‘pillared graphene’ to accommodate this ideal, clean fuel which is hydrogen.
Two distinct approaches were described, ‘chemisorbtion’ and ‘physisorbtion’, and the two forms of hydrogen, atomic H and molecular H2, considered in relation to the storage materials studied, including metal hydrides and complex hydrides (H), and porous adsorbents (H2).  The extraordinary storage potential of combined ‘metal-organic’ structures were illustrated, as were the strange forms of porous polymers, and the curious need to optimise both surface area and volume in their sub-microscopic pores.
An interesting facet of the presentation was the attention paid, in this young technology, to the need to establish standard modes of measurement and evaluation, so as better to compare different solutions to the challenge of hydrogen storage.  A particular complication lies in the wide range of temperatures at which hydrogen can be stored (from 23C to -260C), let alone the huge range of pressures.  These devices all imply some energy loss for refrigeration and compression, and more for activating hydrogen release for use.   Another downside is the danger of accidents, but here hydrogen offers the advantage that an explosion rises vertically and is almost consumed in a minute, whereas hydrocarbon fuels stay at ground level, burn for longer, and produce noxious fumes.
What are the future prospects?  The Space Shuttle was powered by hydrogen, as are some cars and buses, but there is only one Hydrogen Station so far in England.  As of now, a car with hydrogen storage tanks similar to a standard car on petrol has a range of some 200 miles, but many improvements ‘are in the pipeline’.  The great attractions in these new technologies are that exhaust is completely clean, nothing worse that plain water (H2O) or steam, and the fuel is hydrogen, which at its simplest can be produced by electrolysis, from water and electricity.  Just a tap and a socket!   In real life, an infrastructure will need to grow by demand.  How long?  For many years, power from nuclear fusion has been forecast as twenty years ahead, and still is.  The hydrogen world is more cagey, but their caution seems, to an outsider, to cautiously smile.
Martin Sturge
BRLSI Convenor, Speaking of Research
in cooperation with the University of Bath
Responses to this event:
“I cannot say how proud I was to see members of my group talking so brilliantly yesterday.  Makes everything worthwhile.” Dr Tim Mays, Dept of Chemical Engineering, University of Bath.
“It was a wonderful opportunity and a novel challenge for us to present our research area to such a varied audience.” Dr Valeska Ting.

“Thank you again for a hugely enjoyable, well-attended, well-executed and well-received presentation for the ‘Speaking of Research’ series. You managed to communicate cutting-edge research involving some pretty mind-bending concepts to an audience who largely had no familiarity with the research area.” Tim Stoneman, Postgraduate & International Coordinator, University of Bath Students’ Union.