Solving the hydrogen energy storage problem

Much can be said of Associate Professor Kondo-François Aguey-Zinsou’s ground-breaking work on hydrogen as a source of clean energy. But one of the most fascinating projects he is currently working on is a collaboration with the US Navy on unlocking the potential of sodium borohydride to solve the hydrogen energy storage problem.

At Merlin our approach to solving this storage problem is to engineer hydride materials “atoms by atoms” so we can accurately tailor their properties for given applications

Associate Professor Kondo-François Aguey-Zinsou

With a high chemical energy density and zero emissions when produced from renewable resources, Associate Professor Kondo-François Aguey-Zinsou believes that hydrogen is set to become a major fuel of the future, and one which “bridges the gap” between intermittent renewable and rapidly depleting fossil fuels. However, key to this effort is working out a way to effectively store and release hydrogen on demand.

His team have already developed a material capable of storing hydrogen at a low storage capacity, and what he is seeking to do in this project with the US Navy is design a material with a much higher storage capacity. “I can make an analogy with computers,” explains Aguey-Zinsou who leads the team at Merlin – the Materials Energy Research Laboratory in Nanoscale at UNSW School of Chemical Engineering.

“First generation computers were only able to do simple operations, but nowadays we have computers capable of doing billions of operations at the same time. That’s the kind of “step-change” we’re working on right now with hydrogen storage.”

Specifically, his team are working on a way to control or “unlock the potential” of the properties of components called borohydrides by working at the nanoscale. Says Aguey-Zinsou: “At Merlin our approach to solving this storage problem is to engineer hydride materials “atoms by atoms” so we can accurately tailor their properties for given applications. We think that if we can make nanoparticles of those materials then we will be able to control the way they absorb and desorb hydrogen.” Associate Professor Kondo-François Aguey-Zinsou

Having proved this idea in concept, Aguey-Zinsou says the next stage, and indeed the motivation for this project, is to design a practical material that can store 5-10 times the hydrogen storage capacity of their current material.

With a fruitful relationship with UNSW Engineering going back many years, the US Navy heard about the work of Aguey-Zinsou and expressed an interest in funding this fundamental research.

“The US Navy have considerable interest in hydrogen as an energy source. Their interest is not only in providing clean fuel for various applications, such as running fuel cells in autonomous engines, but because hydrogen has a high-energy density with the potential to be produced anywhere. At the moment, the only way they can access energy is by having access to petrol, which means fossil fuels.”

For Aguey-Zinsou, the most satisfying part of the project is the free reign he’s been given to develop new and exciting ideas. “The US Navy are after really profound fundamental research. For obvious reasons, they want to be at the edge of this technology, so are pushing us to come up with things that are really innovative, which is hugely enjoyable.”


Partnership in Summary

Partner: US Navy:  Office of Naval Research

Type of partnership: Contract research

Funding: The US Navy is funding a UNSW PhD student

Purpose: Fundamental research focused on unlocking the potential of sodium borohydride as a reversible hydrogen store.

Outcomes: So far, the group have published one paper on the topic with research ongoing.

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