H2O on the go: fuelling the future of sustainable vehicles
Image credit: Electriq~Global
Water could be the fuel source for running the emission-free engines of the future.
It seems vehicles can run on most things these days: from batteries to hydrogen, to natural gas and even human waste. But how about water? This is what Australian-Israeli start-up Electriq~Global claims can fuel vehicles from a bicycle to an articulated lorry, adding that it can outperform other fuels by twice the range at half the cost with no emissions.
Actually, it’s not purely water. Electriq~Global’s proprietary mix comprises 60 per cent H2O. The rest is a mixture of stabilising chemicals and a borohydride (BH4) salt, which releases hydrogen on demand.
“Essentially you are getting a water-based hydrogen solution that is stable, non-flammable, non-explosive and very simple to transport and store at ambient room temperature and pressure,” says Electriq~Global’s CEO Guy Michrowski. “All of these things contribute to the cost reduction of the system.”
The technology is mature enough that the company has gone into partnership with Dutch firm Eleqtec to roll out the system in the Netherlands, where the government has set ambitious CO2 reduction targets. The plan is to introduce Electriq~Fuel as a clean solution for trucks, buses, barges and other mobility platforms. One application that Michrowski sees as a quick win is mobile generators.
“Very soon, in Holland, you will face fines or sanctions if you are using diesel generators,” adds Michrowski. “That’s where our solution comes in. Think of people doing road works overnight; you need lighting for long hours. Then when you want to change the fuel tank, it’s much easier to do it with our liquid than with high-pressure tanks of compressed hydrogen.”
Electriq~Global doesn’t see itself as competing with current hydrogen fuel cell technology. Instead, the water-based fuel plugs in to existing fuel cell systems, supplying the fuel storage and catalyst that provide hydrogen on demand to the fuel cell.
It works by placing the fuel in contact with a catalyst – a proprietary system of metal mesh called Electriq~Switch (yes, everything comes with one of those funny squiggles). The resulting hydrolysis reaction produces hydrogen, 50 per cent of which comes from the decomposition of the water molecules and 50 per cent from the decomposition of the BH4. What is left is a mixture of water and borate ions (BO4), which can be recycled. The company claims there are no emissions during the entire process, the only outputs being hydrogen and heat.
There is a clear advantage here over current storage methods, which involve using compressed hydrogen. As a water-based solution, Electriq~Fuel can be stored at room temperature and pressure and is non-flammable and non-explosive. However, the liquid is toxic to skin in a similar way to bleach, so refuelling systems would need to be closed, preventing contact with hands.
The waste product from the process is returned to the fuel tank, which has a dynamic membrane that keeps the fuel and waste separate. Electriq~Global plans to recycle the waste liquid by removing it from vehicles at refuelling stations using a clever double-nozzle pump that would refuel and extract the waste simultaneously.
The waste product is then transported to a recycling plant where it is replenished with water and hydrogen in a process called Electriq~Recycling. Electriq~Global is yet to open one of these recycling factories but is currently building its first pilot plant in Israel which will come online later this year.
Much of what the company claims about the cleanness of the process depends on how these plants will be powered and supplied. The company says it will use low-purity hydrogen, the by-product of other industrial chemical processes such as chlorine and steel production. The first plant will be powered by a combination of natural gas and electricity, transitioning to electric-only in the longer term, says Michrowski. Importantly, this means the entire process will not be emission-free, as the company’s PR claims. There is also the question of how the vehicles transporting the waste to and from the recycling plants will be fuelled.
Despite some question marks, the first working products are expected in 2020, with prototypes appearing later this year. Overall, Michrowski sees a timeline of three to five years for a market roll-out. Electriq~Global is also working on a project with a truck manufacturer in China which is “probably the largest in the world for hydrogen”. The system has been shown to produce enough hydrogen on demand to supply the 30kW fuel cell that powers the company’s truck.
What about cars? Michrowski sees them as more within the realm of battery power, at least in the near term, with hydrogen applications confined to being range extenders. “I think we’re going to see a mix between battery-only vehicles and hydrogen-powered vehicles,” he says. “The bigger the vehicle gets and the longer driving distance it has, then these vehicles should have fuel cells and hydrogen power – trucks, buses and utility vehicles, trains, electric planes and ships will all be powered by hydrogen.”
One benefit of Electriq~Global’s technology is how painlessly it could slip into this new and growing market. “We don’t really change the supply chain,” says Michrowski. “The same companies that design such systems today, they will be the ones that continue to design and develop our system. They will simply get from us our catalyst and build the system around it.”
This, ironically, is perhaps the fuel’s greatest strength – that it isn’t really a fuel at all, but rather an energy storage solution. As such, it could have far wider applications than transport alone and, ultimately, be a challenger to batteries themselves.
“It can be used for converting energy from solar panels, solar fields, wind turbine farms, you name it,” says Michrowski. “It converts that energy into our fuel then you can spend it and regenerate it wherever you need. That is the longer vision, but we’re not there yet.”
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