As you read this, the world around us is changing. To make sure future generations can live in a peaceful manner on this planet, we need a climate-neutral energy system. Generating green energy from solar, wind and water is one thing, but storing it and using it where it is necessary is even more difficult. The transport sector alone accounts for 14% of yearly carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention all the other harmful substances like nitrogen oxides and soot.
Fundamental to our society is a stable energy supply. Inherent to our supply of green energy, however, is unstable energy generation. To make a successful transition towards a sustainable future, we need an energy carrier that can replace fossil fuels. We propose formic acid as a suitable candidate. Formic acid is a liquid that is energy-dense and safe, and can be efficiently converted to electricity where and when it is needed.
Team FAST is a multidisciplinary team that consists of more than 30 ambitious students from the TU Eindhoven and Fontys. The team originates in the Honors Academy of the TU/e. For more information about the team and her members, click here.
Formic acid is a molecule that consists of both carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2). It is a chemical molecule that is found in nature in for example ants. In industry, it is often used as a livestock food preservative.
We use formic acid to carry high amounts of energy. Under the influence of a catalyst, formic acid can be split into CO2 and H2. A new catalyst invented at the TU/e by the group of dr. Evgeny Pidko, sparked our interest in formic acid as an energy carrier.
The catalyst we currently use was developed by dr. G. (Gábor) Laurenczy at the research group ISIC Group of Catalysis for Energy and Environment at the Institute of chemical sciences and engineering at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). This catalyst is much more stable than the old one and uses water as the solvent. Dr. Laurenczy developed a catalyst that merges hydrogen and CO2 into formic acid and vice versa, this was previously possible, but never this stable. Besides it being much more stable than the old one, it also uses water as the solvent. To produce the formic acid, energy is needed to bind the H2 (from the water) to the CO2. In our system, formic acid is converted to H2 and CO2. This is shown in the illustration below.
The hydrogen (H2) can in turn be injected into a fuel cell to generate electricity and power the electric motor. The tailpipe emissions are only CO2 and water; no other harmful gases like nitric oxides (NOx), soot or sulphuric oxides (SOx) are emitted.
Calling formic acid a sustainable fuel might seem odd because it emits CO2. However during the sustainable production of formic acid, CO2 is taken from a carbon source (be it air, exhaust fume, biomass etc.) and converted with water to formic acid. We work together with partners who are testing a formic acid production facility that ferments biomass, in this way the carbon cycle is closed.
Aside from a bus, any other application that needs electricity, heat, water or CO2 can use formic acid. In the future, Team FAST will develop other technologies that work with formic acid.
Advantages of Formic Acid
Refuelling your formic acid car is just as easy as refueling a standard gasoline car. There is no need to wait for a battery to recharge at a charging station. Especially for the heavy transport sector this is very convenient, because after a short stop the trucks and busses can easily continue their journey.
Due to large variations in solar power and wind speeds, renewable energy causes large peaks in production. At these productions peaks, formic acid can be produced with the surplus of energy. This formic acid can then be used wherever and whenever needed, fulfilling society’s demand for a stable and sustainable energy supply.
Team FAST is currently working on a life-sized bus that runs on formic acid. Before starting on the actual bus, we developed a scale model of one meter in length. This small prototype is the FormAuto Jr. , depicted below. We built this prototype as a proof of concept. It produces about 25 Watts in power and was revealed in January 2016. This created a lot of media attention, from Discovery Channel to Russia Today. A small collection can be found here.
A real sized bus of course uses a lot more power than 25 Watts. We need a thousand times more power to make the bus move! To upscale the process, we moved to a new location to test the device. This location is in Helmond, at the Automotive Campus.
WHY A BUS?
We choose to convert an electric bus because of several reasons. We see around us that electric driving is getting more and more popular. However, this is mostly for personal transport and not for large cargo transport or heavier vehicles. To become truly sustainable, we need to change ALL the vehicles. Therefore, we want to contribute to the transport revolution, where heavy vehicles can drive sustainable too!
When the bus will be finished, a closing event will be held where everyone interested is welcome! This closing event will host famous speakers and reveal the world’s first bus able to drive on formic acid! More info will follow as soon as the event comes nearer.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the price of formic acid?
Currently, formic acid costs about €0.50 / L.
What is the energy density of Formic Acid?
This is based on the hydrogen weight percent, which is around 5%. Using the produced hydrogen to form water, 7.6 MJ/L is released. This corresponds to 2.11 kWh / L, a more used unit in for example battery technology. This is a fixed value, since it is an intrinsic property of formic acid and unfortunately we cannot alter that. By way of comparison, hydrogen has an energy density of 0.75 kWh / L and batteries can contain 0.57 kWh / L.
Why wasn't this invented or used earlier?
Until recently, catalysts were not powerful, stable or usable enough to produce high quantities of hydrogen gas. Some had a low lifetime, after that the catalyst would break. Some others produced carbon monoxide (CO), which destroys the fuel cell. During recent research, new catalysts that are this powerful, stable and usable were discovered.
Is Formic Acid safe?
Formic acid has a high flashpoint, which means that formic acid is not easily flammable. Under ambient conditions, it behaves as a liquid, meaning no high pressures are present in our system.
Why do you not use another chemical as a hydrogen carrier instead of formic acid?
Several reasons exist to not use alternatives such as having to work under pressure, slow hydrogen production, CO production, low efficiency, safety and energy density. Formic acid, in our view, has the highest potential as a truly economically feasible substitute to fossil fuels compared to its sustainable peers.
Why do we need sustainability?
The earth is heating up at a relentless rate, mainly due to rising carbon dioxide emissions. We need to stop these emissions and one place to do so is in the transport sector.
Does it work already - Proof of principle?
We presented a proof of principle in January 2015, the FormAuto Junior.
What are you working on right now?
A city bus that is powered by formic acid.
What are your future plans?
A new student team will come and start with a new project related to formic acid. That team will determine what innovative breakthrough they will engineer.
Why are you a non-profit foundation?
We are non-profit because we are a student team that is working completely for free! We do this because we want to make the world sustainable and we love this project and its technology.
Do you have patents?
Not yet! However, we might in the future.
What is your go-to-market time?
We do not know either. Currently we are exploring our opportunities.
(In) what competitions have you participated/prizes did you win?
Check this page to find out!
Where are you located?
The address of the workshop is Automotive Campus Helmond, Automotive Campus 30, 5708JZ Helmond.
The address of the office is Multimedia Paviljoen, Horsten 1, 5612AX Eindhoven.
I want to use photos of you prototpe, where can I find them?
We have an Instagram page. You are free to use the pictures. We’d like to hear from you when you use our picture.
I want to help you reach your goal, what should I do?
Your best bet would be contacting us via here.