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Electric Avenue

A Compound That Can Unfold To The Size Of A Football Field Could Make Hydrogen Cars Take Off

It’s the most porous material known to man, which means it would be perfect for storing hydrogen, or for keeping CO2 from factories out of the air. Meet the metal organic framework.

The metal organic framework (MOF), a crystalline compound, looks like simple table salt. It actually has the highest internal surface area of any known substance on the planet; If unfolded, a single MOF could cover a football field. It’s also the most porous material known to man. These are qualities that could make MOFs the key to better hydrogen cars and carbon capture and storage technology in the future.

Framergy, a Texas-based startup that licensed the ARPA-E funded MOF technology, is working on commercial applications for the compound. "There’s a big energy penalty usually associated with clean energy down to the molecular level," explains Jason Orenstein, the executive director of Framergy. MOFs can reduce that energy penalty and make clean technologies more efficient.

In carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities, which capture carbon dioxide from polluting plants (i.e. coal-fired power plants) and store it, a significant amount of energy is wasted trying to catch CO2. Instead of simply capturing all the greenhouse gas, CCS facilities first have to chemically separate CO2 from gases like nitrogen and water vapor that also get spewed into the air. MOFs could change that.

"Since we can design the [MOF] framework, the materials and build them at will and modify the surface, we can [design them to] only capture CO2 but not nitrogen," says Joe Zhou, chief scientific advisor at Framergy. "We could save 40% of the energy from [today’s] carbon capture."

MOFs could be similarly useful for hydrogen-powered vehicles. The molecules are so porous that they can be used to store large amounts of hydrogen at a low pressure. Today, hydrogen is stored at a high pressure, which is both expensive and potentially unsafe. "We can lower pressure and improve temperatures, reducing the cost of hydrogen storage," says Zhou.

Is that enough to switch the auto industry’s focus from electric cars to hydrogen-powered vehicles? Probably not in the near future, but it does make the technology more viable down the line.