UK researchers invent 'artificial petrol' costing 19p per litre

British scientists are developing an artificial petrol that could cost as little as 19p per litre. The future fuel ditches hydrocarbons for the cleaner, more abundant element hydrogen.

Automobiles

UK researchers are developing a synthetic petrol that could cost as little as 19p per litre. The future fuel, developed by Cella Energy in Didcot, ditches hydrocarbons for the cleaner, more abundant element hydrogen.

It could be a fabulously efficient source of energy -- hydrogen has a much higher amount of potential energy than petrol in any given weight. It's notoriously difficult to deal with, however, as it has an unhelpful tendency to explode once it's mixed with oxygen. Cella says it's found a solution that will allow motorists to pour a hydrogen-based fuel directly into a car's standard fuel tank without risk of a Hindenburg-style meltdown at the pumps.

The company plans to store the hydrogen, in the form  of ammonia-borane hydride, safely inside nanobeads with a porous polymer coating. The nanobeads -- think of them as tiny M&Ms with hydrogen nuts inside -- protect the volatile chemical from the elements, but their minuscule size and composition mean they behave as a fluid, so they can be transported in much the same way as petrol.

The ammonia-borane hydride beads could be stored in a tank at filling stations and pumped into cars using ordinary fuel pumps. Once their contents have been burned, the empty nanobeads could then be directed into a separate tank, where they'd be removed and rehydrogenated at a later date.

Cellar Energy says it expects the hydrogen nanobeads to be compatible with existing cars without engine modification. The firm also says they can be added to ordinary petrol, diesel, kerosene or jet fuel, which could reduce fuel costs and lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

Cella Energy claims a petrol mix containing 20 per cent ammonia-borane hydride would emit 30 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre than ordinary petrol.

It's promising news, we think you'll agree, but Cella Energy has several problems to overcome before this is a realistic alternative to today's fuels. Most significantly, empty nanobeads are difficult to restock with hydrogen. It might be the most abundant element in the universe, but extracting it from the atmosphere and forcing it into liquidy little M&Ms is anything but straightforward. As you can tell from our utter inability to describe it.

Cella Energy is currently working with researchers at Oxford University and University College London to perfect the technology, which it expects to be ready for use in three to five years. Watch this space for more as we get it.

Photo credit: David A Villa on Flickr.

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