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Hydrogen-Powered Car With a Graphene Tank
March 27, 2014   
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Polish university researchers in the central city of £ód¼ have teamed up with an industrial partner to build an innovative—superstrong, ultralight and highly efficient—fuel tank for cars powered by hydrogen; the tank will be made from graphene, a revolutionary new material that is more than 100 times harder than steel. With the technology, hydrogen-powered cars will be able to travel 1,000 or so kilometers without stopping for refueling. The project has been financed by Poland’s National Center for Research and Development.

The project is being carried out by the Institute of Materials Science and Engineering at the £ód¼ University of Technology together with Seco/Warwick, a company based in the western town of ¦wiebodzin and listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. The project manager is Prof. Piotr Kula, director of the Institute of Materials Science and Engineering.

Graphene is a revolutionary new material that could have myriad hi-tech applications and may replace silicon in the electronic devices of the future. Transparent, flexible and durable, graphene offers a huge range of potential applications in industry. According to experts, it may take a long time before graphene can be used on a large scale in the automotive or aerospace sectors. First scientists will have to produce graphene suitable for such applications. There are already patents in this area. Scientists now want to develop graphene material for the manufacture of products such as fuel tanks. That will be followed by long stages of testing, research, and finally putting the new material to a commercial use.

The Polish project, called “graphene nanocomposite for reversible hydrogen storage,” is being carried out by the Institute of Materials Science and Engineering at the £ód¼ University of Technology. The project is part of a zl.60 million program financed by the NCBiR. With these funds, Polish research institutions working as part of consortiums with businesses, can conduct research and prepare to implement innovative products based on graphene. The nanocomposite for hydrogen storage is unique among these, experts say.

“Countries around the world are trying to outpace one another in graphene technology,” says Kula, the manager of the Polish project who is also vice-rector of the £ód¼ University of Technology. “Research into graphene, which is an allotropic form of carbon, still holds many secrets. But for the first time, we do not have to play catch-up with the rest of the world, because we all started out at about the same time. We are already working with an industrial partner to gain a competitive advantage on the market.”

The £ód¼ researchers, teamed up with the Seco/Warwick SA company, are working to produce graphene according to their own patent. Polish researchers have patented several methods for producing graphene. The product is attractive in terms of costs, so it is possible that Poland will be selling graphene to countries around the world, Kula says—though this is not a simple matter because graphene samples produced with different methods can be very different from one another.

When approached for graphene, various centers offer various products based on carbon, says Kula. “But these differ from one another in terms of structure, layers, and the size of individual crystallites. They have different properties and therefore different application options. As part of our research and development work we are buying what various suppliers across the world offer in terms of graphene and are examining its properties. Our own product is close to perfect. It is polycrystalline graphene, which consists of many grains. We can grow either single grains or large flakes. We can already produce very nice graphene; we have showcased it many times at international exhibitions, for example in Washington in 2013.”

The £ód¼ University of Technology is producing graphene using original technology for which the scientists have filed a patent with the European Patent Office. Their recipe is based on a different mechanism for producing and growing graphene than the one patented by the Warsaw-based Institute of Electronic Materials Technology, which is working to develop graphene production technology based on metallic and dielectric substrates (insulators) as part of a flagship EU project.

The £ód¼ project’s budget is zl.6.2 million, of which nearly zl.4.9 million comes from the NCBiR, says Kula. “The rest is provided by Seco/Warwick SA. The project aims to develop a graphene-based material for reversible hydrogen storage. In the future, this material is expected to be used in the automotive sector for the production of tanks that hold new-generation fuel. It will also likely be used in other industries, for filtering gas, separating various mixtures in technological processes as well as in flexible electronics and textronics.”

Graphene produced by Kula’s team is ultralight and has high mechanical strength. Tests confirm that it can be successfully used as a material for hydrogen storage. It can absorb and release this gas as a result of temperature changes. Individual hydrogen atoms chemically bind to the surface of graphene, which makes it possible to store hydrogen at a constant level of concentration. After heating the hydrogen can be recovered in the form of an H2 molecule. In the future, fuel stored in this way can be a source of powering car or spacecraft engines. Existing hydrogen storage systems internationally are not able to maintain 100 percent concentration of this gas for even a day—while the tanks storing it are heavy, which limits their use in the aerospace and automotive sectors, where weight is of paramount importance.

The Seco/Warwick company managed by Wojciech Modrzyk is working on special furnaces for the industrial production of graphene. A prototype of such a furnace reached the laboratories at the £ód¼ University of Technology in early February.

“The device constructed by our industrial partner according to our specifications will produce graphene for our project for the time being,” says Kula. “If we want to store large amounts of hydrogen, we must also have an appropriate amount of graphene, for a relatively low price. It’s necessary to remember that this is only one layer of atoms that can absorb and release hydrogen atoms on both sides of the surface. Now we need to build a model of a three-dimensional material. We will work on the basis of graphene flakes with appropriate spaces between its layers—so that this space is permeable to hydrogen. In some thermodynamic conditions, this gas is expected to enter the tank; in others to come out of it.”

Automotive corporations, airline companies and the aerospace industry are all interested in the results of the research project being conducted by Kula. For now, however, it is too early for specifics, even though, Kula says, the Seco/Warwick company has specialized marketing services abroad that are already looking for business contacts. This technology is so attractive that it is worth showcasing it at various trade fairs. It has already met with great interest from chemical companies at a trade fair in the United States.

“The automotive sector is a distant goal of the project. Meanwhile, many possibilities for other applications have appeared—filters, sensors, screens for protection against electromagnetic radiation,” says Kula.

Kula’s team consists of around a dozen researchers employed at the £ód¼ University of Technology’s Institute of Materials Science and Engineering. The research also involves graduate and doctoral students who are pursuing their degree projects there. The project will result in the establishment of start-ups. One such business is already in operation: AGT Sp. z o.o.

The scientific and industrial consortium of the £ód¼ University of Technology’s Institute of Materials Science and Engineering and Seco/Warwick SA is a powerful duo. The £ód¼ University of Technology is one of the best technical universities in Poland. Technologies developed there have won many medals and awards at exhibitions and trade fairs in Poland and abroad, in venues such as Brussels, Geneva, Casablanca and Pittsburgh. Due to the original solutions involved, the technologies are protected by Polish and international patents. Seco/Warwick is among the world’s leading manufacturers of furnaces for the heat treatment of metals, in terms of both sales and the product range. Its main customers are automotive and aerospace companies as well as tool makers. The consortium has already secured two U.S. patent applications related to the manufacture and modification of graphene.

Karolina Olszewska

Experts describe graphene as an allotropic form of carbon. It was isolated and tested for the first time in 2004. For their research into graphene, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian-born professors from the University of Manchester in Britain, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms that form a flat, practically two-dimensional grid (length and width) with hexagonal meshes and a honeycomb structure. A membrane made of graphene is impermeable to water and gases, but not for water vapor, which offers hope for using it as a filter, researchers say.

Graphene is flexible and transparent. It can be stretched by around 20 percent without undergoing any damage. The potential number of its uses is almost unlimited, for example in the production and storage of energy, medicine, materials science, and environmental protection, in addition to electronics, aeronautics and the automotive industry. Potential applications also include the production of composite materials, touchscreens, flexible displays, transparent electrodes for use in photovoltaics, super-capacitors in electric vehicles, packaging and protective layers, photodetectors and transistors, conductive plastics and paints, hydrogen storage technology, membranes, sensors, nanoelectric power generators, medical supplies, pharmacology and bacteriology.
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