Death to Exxon? A sythentic fuel maker hopes so

What would it mean to the future of the oil industry if you could buy hydrogen-based fuel at $1.50 a gallon, pump it in your car and drive off? We just might find out…

What would it mean to the future of the oil industry if you could buy hydrogen-based fuel at $1.50 a gallon, pump it in your car without any modification to your engine and drive off? We could be three to five years away from finding out. Researchers at a 1,200-person Oxford, UK-based lab have developed what they claim is a alternative hydrogen fuel that can be pumped into existing tanks and used like gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

The development prompted STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to spin-off a new company, Cella Energy Limited, and Cella’s alt-fuel was convincing enough to land venture capital from Thomas Swan & Co Ltd. last week. A press release announcing the fuel was released shortly thereafter.

“In some senses hydrogen is the perfect fuel; it has three times more energy than petrol per unit of weight, and when it burns it produces nothing but water,” says Professor Stephen Bennington, lead scientist on the project. “But the only way to pack it into a vehicle is to use very high pressures or very low temperatures, both of which are expensive to do.”

Cella has managed to skirt that problem by encapsulating hydrogen in micro-fibers that are 30 times smaller than a human hair. Clump those fibers together and you’ve got a wad of tissue-like hydrogen that you can toss around like Silly Putty. Alternatively, Cella can turn the fibers into microbeads that can be pumped into an engine like gasoline. As the engine depletes the hydrogen in the beads, they gradually run out of fuel and deflate. The beads would then need to be diverted to another tank to be re-filled at a later date, and you could go to the filling station to pump more hydrogen into your gas tank.

Cella envisions a number of uses for the technology; from powering cars to jets and even rockets. They’ve also proposed using wind turbines at sea to convert seawater into encapsulated hydrogen that could be shipped to the coast. Not only would that reduce the cost of transporting electricity great distances, it would reduce energy inefficiencies and provide a great source of low-cost fuel and electricity. If Cella’s ideas ever get off the ground, I think it’s safe to safe their IPO would be a “buy,” and you just might want to sell short that Exxon you’ve been holding.

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