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Russian research capabilities are advancing the hydrogen economy

Ensuring that hydrogen-burning engines are explosion-proof is one of the barriers to establishing a hydrogen economy. A tiny Russian-designed hydrogen sensor that can quickly detect and warn of a gas leak may be one of the technologies to help catapult the world into the hydrogen age.

A research and business collaboration among Apollo, Inc., of Kennewick, Washington, scientists from the Karpov Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow, Russia, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has resulted in the design and commercialization of a miniature hydrogen gas sensor that is more reliable, works faster, and costs less than other sensors currently in use.

PNNL initiated this relationship through the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (GIPP) program. The GIPP program creates opportunities for scientists who worked in the weapons technology field during the Cold War era to redirect their research toward peaceful and profitable endeavors. Professors Leonid Trakhtenberg, Genrikh Gerasimov and Vladimir Gromov were using nanoscale materials for sensing reactive gases at the Karpov Institute. GIPP provided the technology transfer mechanism to convert their nanoscale approach into a commercially available product and introduce it to the marketplace.

The collaboration among the Karpov Institute, PNNL and Apollo began about five years ago according to Brian Opitz, the Laboratory's GIPP nanometals sensor project manager. PNNL, already working with the Russian team, began searching for a U.S. business partner to commercialize the technology. "Our original visionary for this project at PNNL, Dom Cataldo, approached Apollo with the idea of working with the Russian scientists to design and build a better hydrogen gas sensor," Opitz said. "Two years later, a CRADA was signed to develop, test and produce sensors that would detect and measure various gases."

A CRADA, Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, is a contractual agreement that provides the unique opportunity to use new technologies evolving from federal research programs in a collaborative way. The collaborating parties share costs and pool the results of their research and development program.

In this case, Battelle, which operates PNNL for DOE, exclusively licensed patent applications based on certain inventions derived under the CRADA to Apollo, and Apollo applied for the global patent on the hydrogen gas sensor. Apollo Sensor Technology (AST), a division that Apollo, Inc., created to commercialize the sensor, will pay Battelle royalties derived from sales of the technology. Under the provisions of the GIPP program, Battelle will then share such royalties with the Karpov Institute.

Dan Briscoe, AST vice president for business development, said industry is looking for the next level of leak detection technology. The new sensors can detect tiny amounts of hydrogen in the parts-per-million range, which is essential for the technology to be effective because concentrations of only 4 percent of the gas can result in an explosion.

AST anticipates marketing the sensors to industries that manufacture, store and use hydrogen in their production processes, such as power plants and petroleum refineries where hydrogen gas is involved in processing heavy crude to light crude. Hydrogen also powers some emergency backup systems used at microwave towers, radio stations and hospitals.

A similar nanotechnology approach used for the hydrogen sensor is capable of detecting and measuring other gases as well, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Research is already under way to design similar sensors to detect gases in indoor environments, leading to computerized continuous monitoring systems for better air quality in office buildings, schools, hospitals, and cruise ships.

(Photo caption: Apollo's new tiny Russian-designed hydrogen gas sensor would be ideal for safety detection systems in futuristic hydrogen-powered cars. )

(Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Shell Hydrogen.)

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