A new spongelike crystal material, called HKUST-1, could speed the adoption of natural gas powered vehicles and make it easier to store fuel.
As an alternative automotive fuel, natural gas, or methane, doesn't get a lot of attention. Millions of environmentally friendly, natural gas–powered vehicles cruise the world’s roads, but they still account for just a tiny fraction of new autos sold. That's because they require bulky and expensive high-pressure tanks to store enough of the fossil fuel to meet drivers’ demands. Researchers have now come up with the new material that’s able to store a large volume of methane at low pressure.
Natural gas has some decided benefits as a fuel. Abundant underground in oil-rich geological formations, it typically costs less than gasoline for an equivalent amount of energy. Per mile of travel, methane also produces about one-third less climate-warming carbon dioxide than gasoline and diesel. But natural gas also has a big downside: It’s far less dense than liquid gasoline, so it takes up far more space. One liter of gasoline contains as much energy as 1000 liters of natural gas at ambient temperature and pressure. Fuel suppliers whack that enormous volume down by compressing the gas to about 250 times atmospheric pressure, or 250 bar. But containing the high-pressure gas requires specialized tanks that cost thousands of dollars and still fill up much of the trunk of a car.
Now chemists at the University of Cambridge have come up with a simple way to make HKUST-1 more dense and increase its v/v to 259, essentially meeting the DOE target for the first time. The new material can also adopt different shapes, so tank manufacturers may be able to use it to replace conventional cylindrical tanks with rectangular ones, which make better use of limited storage capacity.
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