That could make formic acid a more expensive hydrogen source than methane or methanol. At the same time, the process takes less energy than steam reforming, and with better catalysts, the researchers could make costs more favorable, Beller says.
Formic acid could have a shot at reaching the portable electronics fuel-cell market, suggests Richard Farmer, who leads the hydrogen production and delivery team at the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Laboratory.
To make large quantities of hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles, however, the process would have to compare with the current benchmark: steam-methane reforming. With a small steam-reformer unit at a fueling station, Farmer says, “we’ve hit our near-term target of three dollars per kilogram [of hydrogen], untaxed but delivered.”
Beller and his colleagues may have a long way to go to produce sufficient amounts of cheap hydrogen for vehicles, but they are already discussing their technology with two German automotive companies. They are also working with some engineers to build a small prototype model car that uses the technology and that should be ready in two months. But in the short term, Beller says, the researchers consider formic acid a fuel source for portable electronics. “We don’t aim currently for large use in cars–this does not make sense.”