Better fueling through chemistry.

Figuring out better ways to fuel vehicles inevitably leads to a slew of challenges. These include energy density, distribution, storage, production cost, and end consumer cost, to name just a few. What is practical and possible also varies widely based on the type of vehicle involved. While hydrogen fuel cells can work in passenger automobiles, for example, they’re hugely impractical for use in motorcycles and scooters.  

Enter the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM. Based in Dresden, Germany, the Institute recently announced a new product called PowerPaste. In photos, it looks a bit like a smooth spackle, or even squeezing certain acrylic paints out of tubes. That’s not a bad mental image to have, considering how Fraunhofer envisions distribution, but we’ll get to that after you know a little more about this fuel paste. 

To create PowerPaste, Fraunhofer says it takes magnesium powder, then mixes it with hydrogen to form magnesium hydride. A couple of stabilizers later, mix, mix, mix, and it’s the paste you now see before you. Fraunhofer says that this paste can be packed into a neat little cartridge, then squeezed out via a plunger as needed—not unlike a small caulk gun.  

Fraunhofer PowerPaste - Power Generator with PowerPaste Cartridge and PEM Fuel Cell
Power generator with PowerPaste cartridge and PEM fuel cell

From there, the PowerPaste mixes with the water you’re keeping in a separate tank to create hydrogen gas, a process which can be adjusted to fit the specific needs of your fuel cell. Now, for the really elegant part: Water, if you’re recall, contains hydrogen. Part of the reason that the PowerPaste method is so energy dense is because it gets half its hydrogen from that water.  

What about safety? PowerPaste can be stored quite safely at room temperature, and stays just fine even at high temperatures. In fact, Fraunhofer says it stays stable until it hits 250 degrees Celsius, which is 482 degrees Fahrenheit. That means parking your PowerPaste-using bike on a sunny summer day shouldn’t pose any particular fuel-related safety concerns. 

Fraunhofer’s announcement goes on to address other pain points as well, such as infrastructure and distribution. If it’s packed and sold in cartridges, they’re portable, storable, and could easily be sold in shops. Grab your road snacks, some PowerPaste, and some more water and you’re good to go. Larger vehicles could simply pump the goop directly into their tanks, much like thick, gray, gasoline. Fraunhofer plans to start making up to four tons of PowerPaste per year in its own facility by the end of 2021, as a pilot program for additional study. 

Could a convenient, fossil fuel-free solution really be that simple? Not so fast. There are a number of additional questions and/or hurdles standing between us and a PowerPaste-powered future.  

For one, what happens to those empty cartridges after they’re spent? Backtracking a bit, how clean and energy-efficient is this paste to produce in the first place? Also, as Loz Blain at New Atlas asked, what happens to the magnesium after you combine the PowerPaste with water?  

Finally, while most people are probably used to new technologies costing a bit more on introduction and then decreasing in price over time, will end-user costs be reasonable? It looks promising, but we’ll have to wait and see how it develops. 

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