Researchers with the US Army Aberdeen Proving Ground Research Laboratory have stumbled upon an aluminum alloy that, when structured into a nanomaterial powder, efficiently reacts with ordinary water to produce hydrogen gas, that can in turn be burned to produce energy. "The hydrogen that is given off can be used as a fuel in a fuel cell," explains materials engineer and team leader, Scott Grendahl. "What we discovered is a mechanism for a rapid and spontaneous hydrolysis of water."

The researchers’ original intent was to develop a new, high-strength aluminum alloy for structural purposes, but were surprised when water that was poured over the metal started bubbling — hydrogen bubbles — without the need for a chemical catalyst or added energy being applied to the reaction.

Traditionally, storing hydrogen is inherently hazardous, due to the need for the explosive substance to be stored in pressurized containers. For most applications, this results in hydrogen being produced on-site from more stable sources, such as water or petroleum products, but these processes require a chemical catalyst and can be highly energy inefficient, or produce a disproportionate amount of waste pollutants.

"In our case, it does not need a catalyst," explains physicist Dr. Anit Giri, with the lab’s Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. "Also, it is very fast. For example, we have calculated that one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of energy in just three minutes."