Extracting Hydrogen from Methanol

28 February 2013
Posted by Laura Howes.

Hydrogen fuel cells, we keep being told, are the future. A clean energy source that has water as its only emission. But we're often told that hydrogen cars are still a few years away, and one of the reasons for that is the problem of hydrogen storage. Hydrogen exists at room temperature and pressure as a gas.

hydrogen tankGases, by their nature, are not very dense and so to hold the amount of hydrogen to fuel a car for a long drive requires squishing the gas down at with a lot of pressure and then carrying a pressurised container in your car. This adds weight, cost, and can make people worry about safety.

Aware if this problem, scientists in Germany and Italy have discovered a way to extract hydrogen gas from methanol at low temperatures and pressures, meaning that instead you could fill your car up with liquid methanol and then convert it to hydrogen as it's needed.

Using methanol to form hydrogen is not new and is a well-known process known as reforming, but until now it has needed high temperatures and pressures, making in less than ideal for use in cars. The approach devised by this group, led by Matthias Beller of the University of Rostock, uses what's called a pincer complex to accelerate the conversion of methanol to formaldehyde then formic acid and finally carbon dioxide, releasing a hydrogen atom with each step. Crucially this happens at temperatures below 100ºC and without adding any pressure.

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