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USC Breakthrough in Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Travis Williams, assistant professor of chemistry in USC Dornsife. Photo by Dennis Martinez.
Travis Williams, assistant professor of chemistry in USC Dornsife. Photo by Dennis Martinez.

A team of USC Dornsife scientists has developed a robust, efficient method of using hydrogen as a fuel source.

Hydrogen makes a great fuel because it can be converted easily to electricity in a fuel cell and because it is carbon free. The downside of hydrogen is that, because it is a gas, it can only be stored in high pressure or cryogenic tanks.

In a vehicle with a tank full of hydrogen, “if you got into a wreck, you’d have a problem,” said Travis Williams, assistant professor of chemistry in USC Dornsife.

A possible solution is to store hydrogen in a safe chemical form. Earlier this year, Williams, along with USC Dornsife postdoctoral researcher Brian L. Conley and USC Dornsife alumnus Denver Guess, figured out a way to release hydrogen from an innocuous chemical material — ammonia borane, a nitrogen-boron complex — that can be stored as a stable solid.

Now the team has developed a catalyst system that releases enough hydrogen from its storage in ammonia borane to make it usable as a fuel source. Moreover, the system is air-stable and reusable, unlike other systems for hydrogen storage on boron and metal hydrides.

The research was published this month in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Ours is the first game in town for reusable, air-stabile ammonia borane dehydrogenation,” Williams said, adding that the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation is in the process of patenting the system.

The system is sufficiently lightweight and efficient to have potential fuel applications ranging from motor-driven cycles to small aircraft, he said.

The research was funded by the Hydrocarbon Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Read the publication online at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/ja2058154.