H2Go Power is a team of people based at the Imperial College of London that has built what it believes to be the future of air travel by powering drones with hydrogen. H2Go Power is seeking a patent to store the explosive gas cheaply and safely.
Until now, storing hydrogen has required ultra-strong and large tanks which could withstand pressures of up to 10,000 pound-force per square inch. That is hundreds of times greater than what you would find in a car tyre. However, whilst studying for her PhD in Cambridge, Dr Enass Abo-Hamed came up with a revolutionary structure which could store hydrogen as a stable solid without compression. The university paired her with a materials scientist, Dr Luke Sperrin, to try find commercial applications for the innovation – and H2Go Power was born.
Dr Sperrin is now chief technology officer. He and Dr Abo-Hamed formed a partnership with Canadian hydrogen fuel cell maker Ballard a year ago to create a drone which used their reactor to safely store hydrogen for flight. Finally, after months of collaboration by phone and email, Dr Sperrin and chief product developer Peter Italiano flew to Boston for a ground-breaking test flight.
How Does It Work?
The aluminium reactor weighs less than a bag of sugar. The small gas cylinder has an intricate network of 3D-printed aluminium tubes inside. The hydrogen remains stable and sold in these structures until ‘coolant’ is pumped through the tubes, warming them and releasing hydrogen gas to the drone’s fuel cell. Hydrogen (H2) is pumped into one side of the fuel cell through a catalyst which frees electrons, creating electricity. Oxygen (O) is then pumped into the other side of the fuel cell and combines with the left over, positively charged hydrogen atoms (H+). The only final waste product is water vapour (H20).
Until recently, a major hurdle to affordable hydrogen technologies was the cost of producing hydrogen gas. Splitting water molecules into hydrogen used a lot of energy which usually came from fossil fuel sources.
However, the widespread availability of renewable energy and improvements in electrolysis – the chemical process of separating elements using electricity – have brought down the financial and environmental cost of producing hydrogen for fuel.
Currently most countries have strict safety rules about flying drones over heavily populated areas. Collision or technical failure could cause a drone to drop out of the sky. Lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries are highly flammable, so a crash landing could trigger an explosion. However, Dr Abo-Hamed points out, even if their drone fell out of the sky, the hydrogen would remain stable in its sold form inside the reactor.
Hydrogen generates three times as much power per kilogram compared to fossil fuels – approximately 39.0 Kilowatt hours per kilogram with roughly 13 KWh per kg for kerosene or petrol or just 0.2 KhW for conventional lithium ion batteries. This means that a hydrogen-powered drone can fly further than a battery-powered drone, and, potentially, carry heavier loads. Dr Abo-Hamed comments on the possibilities for her innovation:
“My dream is really not just to make drones. Maybe in the next twenty or thirty years we could de-carbonise air travel, which is something really important for our climate.”