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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

What’s Hydrogen got to do with Composites?

As it turns out – quite a bit.  The lead image in this post is of what is called a Type V pressure vessel, which is all carbon fiber without the thin plastic liner as a gas barrier.  These pressure vessels are designed to operate at rather high pressures and can be used to store liquid hydrogen at cryogenic temperature.  That’s really cold in a temperature region where most metals are too brittle to use.  But carbon fiber doesn’t care how cold it is, and if you choose the resin properly, you can make this work. 


The whole idea of this of course is to save weight, which for a rocket planning on lifting a payload into orbit is extremely important. 

It is also important to the ground transportation industry as well as aviation.  That’s why there is so much interest in making this work.  And it is a challenge to make it work.  Hydrogen is notoriously difficult to hold in pressure vessels.  It is after all just a proton and an electron and nothing else, so atoms of hydrogen are very, very small – the second smallest atom in fact after helium.  Hydrogen can even diffuse (albeit very slowly) through a solid steel plate.  And, unfortunately it embrittles the steel on the way through.  Not to get into metal crystallography here but what happens is that the hydrogen is so small that it gets into the interstices between the metal and other much larger atoms in the crystalline structure of an alloy, and it can bond with some of the other atoms rendering the steel brittle.

But what I really wanted to talk about is how these Type V pressure vessels – which are enabled by the use of carbon fiber and clever resin choices as well as clever manufacturing processes – are enabling the hydrogen transportation future.  This arguably is the future of sustainable transportation, and at some point could get us off of the petroleum habit permanently. 

The pic at the start of this post is from the National Composites Centre in Bristol, UK, and is destined to be used as a liquid hydrogen tank for a satellite, so this one is for space propulsion.  And they were not the first, they just had the best pic to put in this post.  The first commercially manufactured Type V pressure vessel was developed by Composites Technology Development in Lafayette, Colorado working with the Air Force Research Lab at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio.  Initially all of these tanks were destined for space applications to carry liquid hydrogen on board satellites for use by the satellite for station keeping and maneuvering into different orbits. 


Newer Type V all carbon fiber tanks have also been developed for the over the road and over the rail transportation industry.  There is one company that have fairly recently developed Type V tanks specifically for use in long haul trucks (18 wheelers) - Infinite Composites in Tulsa, OK.  A pic of their pressure vessel is shown to the right here (courtesy of Composites World).  The only thing that isn’t carbon fiber or epoxy in these tanks is the metal boss at the end where the valve and possibly pressure gauge or sensor goes. 


And yet another company “down under” that has been in the business of developing and manufacturing both Type IV (with a plastic liner) and Type V (no liner) pressure vessels for rail transportation – Omni Tanker in New South Wales, Australia.  They worked with Lockheed Martin starting in 2021 and at the end of last year announced that they had developed full scale Type IV and Type V hydrogen storage tanks to be used for rail transportation of liquid hydrogen.  Yes these things are as big as they seem.  They are after all intended to be used on rail cars to transport liquid hydrogen or liquid helium.    

All of these developments are basically focused on one thing, the up and coming Hydrogen Economy – especially as it pertains to things like long haul transportation.  Until we develop light enough weight and high enough power density batteries, there are limitations to the economic use of battery powered electric vehicles.  The best use of battery powered EVs is for people transportation over relatively short distances, since current battery technology is somewhat limited in energy density and the ability to recharge quickly.  While that is changing and there are several promising new battery technologies that are being developed now, we already have most of what we need to produce large quantities of hydrogen.  Hydrogen produced using renewables (wind and solar) by electrolysis has been worked on now for a number of years, primarily by the Department of Energy here in the U.S., but also in Europe.  In fact, there have been several proposals put forward for installing a hydrogen infrastructure for offshore wind farms, especially for the newly proposed floating wind turbines that are intended to be anchored a great distance offshore.  Given that some of these proposals turn into actual projects, we may see an abundance of hydrogen for ready use for both stationary power and also for transportation.   

All of this is, however, still in the planning stages, and most probably is something to strive for long term.  Today, however, there are ready made solutions for storing hydrogen on board long haul trucks and rail cars, so that at least will start to move truck transportation of goods to a more sustainable future.  All thanks to carbon fiber and its ability to withstand enormous pressures and extremely cold temperatures while maintaining pressure and being safe for use to transport one of the most flammable substances on the planet.

That’s about it for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I also wanted to share that I was invited to be in a Fireside Chat with Dale Dougherty of Make Magazine last week.  That was a lot of fun, and it was live streamed not only to an audience of Premium members of the Make: Community, it was also live streamed on YouTube.  Here’s the link if you want to watch it - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44hP1NUmRMs.  This was a Zoom call and I was in a hotel room doing it, so I used a fir forest background for the call.  This was a lot of fun for me, and since then I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a podcast on composites.  I still need to think about that for a while.  I’m not quite ready to dive into something like that since it still appears a bit daunting to me.  I’ll keep you all posted, but if anyone has a comment about this idea I would love to hear it. 

And I want to remind everyone that I will be speaking at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May.  I’m going to be talking about the subject that I have a passion for – composites sustainability.  Maybe I can help the industry a bit again, maybe even rattle a few cages like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  An it is also available in the Stanford Bookstore if you are a Stanford student or faculty.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



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