Instead of gasoline and diesel, it might one day be possible to just unload a cartridge of gray, goopy paste into the fuel tank of your e-scooter, motorcycle, or even potentially your car. At least, that’s what researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) are hoping.
The goop is called POWERPASTE and is envisioned as a safer, more practical way to use hydrogen as a potential fuel source for green vehicles. The problem is that hydrogen, particularly in a gaseous form, can be volatile, and while hydrogen fuel cells have been tested in cars, the pressure involved in refueling makes it impractical for smaller forms of transportation. Plus, you know, having to build out yet another alternative fueling station network for battery-powered electric vehicles is hard enough.
The paste itself is a mixture of magnesium powder and hydrogen, which then creates magnesium hydride. An ester, a type of chemical compound formed from an alcohol and an acid, and a metal salt are then added to complete the process. According to the researchers, the paste would be stored in a cartridge and released via a plunger. However, the paste only stores half the hydrogen needed—the other half would come from an onboard water tank. Once the water and paste mix, the reaction then creates hydrogen gas in an amount that can be adjusted to fit the needs of the fuel cell.
“POWERPASTE stores hydrogen in a chemical form at room temperature and atmospheric temperature to be then released on-demand,” Dr. Marcus Vogt, a research associate at Fraunhofer IFAM, said in a press release. He also noted that the paste has a much higher energy storage density than a high-pressure tank typically used for hydrogen fuel cells. “And compared to batteries, it has ten times the energy storage density,” Vogt added.
The researchers note that the paste only begins to break down at 482 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius)—meaning it’s no big deal if a scooter or motorcycle sits out in the sun for hours. Plus, paste cartridges would eliminate the need for building out fueling networks, as users could just refuel at home or carry an extra cartridge on-the-go. These cartridges could theoretically be sold at regular gas stations. While there’s no real indication of how much something like this would cost, it’s encouraging that the paste is based on magnesium powder, as magnesium is one of the most abundantly available elements around.
The goopy paste isn’t limited to scooters or motorcycles, however. The researchers say that because of its huge energy storage density, it could be used in cars as well as “range extenders in battery-powered electric vehicles.” The paste could also potentially be used to power large drones for several hours, as opposed to the current 20 minutes or so.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we’ll all be riding paste-powered vehicles in the next year. These sorts of conceptual technologies often take years to make it to market—if they ever do. However, Fraunhofer IFAM says it’s planning on building a production plant for the paste in 2021 that will be able to produce up to four tons of POWERPASTE a year. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s at least something.