Yesterday we looked at a method of releasing hydrogen from methanol. Today we’ll look at releasing hydrogen from formic acid.

Hydrogen in a pure state is terribly problematic. It’s a gas requiring high pressures to compress to small volumes, it has to be super cooled to get to a liquid state, and being an atom or two atom molecule, it is the smallest bit of matter to try to contain. It is also quite reactive and can be exceedingly dangerous. The devil is in the containment and storage.

That makes “storage” in a molecule that can be easily, quickly and cheaply used to hold hydrogen in a stable state very interesting if the hydrogen can be freed up again easily quickly and cheaply, too.

Formic Acid Molecule

Formic acid is a common compound in chemistry, used for preservatives and as an antibacterial agent. In low concentrations, it’s relatively harmless, and has been used in such products as perfumes and flavorings. In strong concentrations it can burn, especially the eyes and the vapors can damage air passages. As acids go its not real bad stuff, but it is an acid after all. Not horrible stuff and comparatively safe and environmentally benign when diluted down with water. Therefore, it could be a useful medium for storing hydrogen as a fuel source.

This brings us to the innovators at Leibniz-Institute for Catalysis in Rostok, Germany. Department head Professor Matthias Beller and team members Bjor Loges, Albert Boddien, and Henrik Junge have developed a process that extracts hydrogen from the formic acid in a controlled fashion at low temperatures and without a reforming process. The hydrogen product after a carbon filtering is suitable for introduction into a fuel cell.

The process they’ve developed neatly extracts the hydrogen from the HCO2H leaving just the CO2. Using an amine, suggesting N,N-dimethylhexylamine with a catalyst also suggesting a commercially available ruthenium phosphine RUCl2(PPH3)2 the reaction takes place at room temperature.

The production side can also be a catalyst chemical reaction making formic acid from biomass where CO2 and derived hydrogen are available. That would make the cycle carbon neutral in principle.

Professor Beller is forthright in the quote “For the use of fuel cells in portable electrical devices – this nascent formic acid technology opens up new possibilities in the short term.”

The key in the quote is “nascent” and the honesty of Professor Beller. It’s way early in this development for projecting usefulness. However, the hard reality is that with the Basque University release we looked at yesterday and this today, the difficulties of hydrogen as a fuel source or energy storage medium are being solved with elegant use of nature and insightful innovation of humanity.

One has to wonder what other compounds might be useful and what other reaction tools may come into useful knowledge. The coming months and years will see the costs and the practical applications expand building a sense of what direction development from the research might go and the products we will use in doing our work.

Coming up with large amounts of methanol and/or formic acid isn’t real hard. There is real promise in these two research paths. May the lowest cost to the consumer project win and win soon.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind