Faculty Profile: Tim Kidd

Making Hydrogen a Viable Fuel: The Search for Hydrogen Storage Materials

Tim KiddTim Kidd, assistant professor of physics, and the team he is leading are on a quest for new materials for storing hydrogen. As an energy source, hydrogen has the advantages of producing no greenhouse gases or particulates while at the same time being extremely versatile in terms of its uses. On the down side, hydrogen is hard to control and very dilute, so high-density storage systems must be developed to realize its potential.

The team is investigating layered materials, so called because under a microscope they look like a stack of tissue paper. Scientists find these materials intriguing because things can be placed within the layers, or scaffolding. Kidd and his group are trying to find different ways that hydrogen can be placed in between the stacks, with the storage at a high enough density to be useful for something like a hydrogen-powered car or generator or for capturing excess energy from, say, a coal plant and storing it as hydrogen.

The research team consists of three faculty members in addition to Kidd. Paul Shand (physics) has led magnetic investigations and has made some very exciting discoveries concerning the magnetic behavior of these materials. Laura Strauss (chemistry and biochemistry) has led efforts in the growth and modification of the materials, leading to the discovery of how to create these materials in the form of nanotubes. Mike Roth has performed a series of computer simulations attempting to discover the fundamental properties of these materials and how these properties relate to the measured effects seen in experiments. Together, the faculty and their many undergraduate research assistants have made great strides in understanding and developing new layered materials.

One area of high interest is magnetism. The layered materials themselves are not magnetic, but magnetic materials such as iron, cobalt or nickel can be placed inside of them. The magnetic properties of the resulting layered materials can then be controlled by choosing the type and quantity of the magnetic metals inserted, with the goal of developing new types of magnets for applications in electric motors or generators.

Kidd attributes the group's ability to produce unusual findings in part to the research equipment purchased through more than $1 million in grants over the past three years. This cutting-edge equipment enables the researchers to work together and combine their individual areas of expertise to efficiently develop new materials for study.

Kidd anticipates that by the end of this year or the next the group will have met its objectives for the hydrogen storage project; the scientists should know if it's scientifically viable, even if they don't know if it's economically feasible. Right now the researchers are trying to make sure they have something that will work outside of the laboratory. 

Possible applications for systems powered using the hydrogen storage materials developed in this project include buses, forklifts or tractors for industrial use. These materials could also enhance wind and solar power generation, both of which generate energy sporadically, so the materials could store energy for later use. This is true even for nuclear and coal plants, which, to run efficiently, must produce a constant supply of energy, leading to overproduction of energy. 

Over the past five years, Kidd has worked with more than 30 student research assistants, mostly undergraduates, as well as a few graduate students and high school science teachers. (The latter were a part of a federal program to encourage these teachers to engage in research.)  All of his student research assistants learn that scientific research is not a neat and clean process. "When something has never been done before, you're not sure what the results will be," Kidd explained. "Sometimes where you get to is much more interesting than where you thought you were going to be."