Romancing hydrogen: Hoi Dick Ng 

By Michael Keegan

Hoi Dick Ng earned a Petro-Canada Young Researcher Award for his work in alternative fuel development. Magnifying glass

Hoi Dick Ng earned a Petro-Canada Young Researcher Award for his work in alternative fuel development.

Hoi Dick Ng has an infectious enthusiasm and sense of humour about his research into alternative fuels.

“I have a good idea how to burn things,” he chuckles. “Now I want to learn how to store things.”

Ng, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, is one of two Concordia recipients of a 2008-09 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award. The other is Andrew Ryder of the Department of Psychology (see Journal April 5 and Nov. 8, 2007).

The prize, which includes a $10 000 grant, is designed to encourage outstanding emerging faculty researchers whose work is innovative, has a positive impact on their academic environment and potentially on society as a whole.

Ng, who’ll turn 32 in June, wants to focus his career on the study of alternatives to fossil fuels and their commercialization for use in automobiles, an area he feels fits in well with Concordia’s commitment to sustainable development. His fuel of choice, thus far, has been hydrogen.

Ng received the award for his work on the design and analysis of novel materials for reversible hydrogen storage.

“The study of hydrogen as an alternative fuel is not new,” says Ng. “It began almost 30 years ago. The problem is that hydrogen is very light and highly flammable, and people have the general impression that it’s dangerous. The main challenge is to find a way to store it safely and efficiently so that it can be used in cars.”

Ng explains three ways this can be done. Cryogenics – lowering the temperature of hydrogen to the extreme point where it condenses into a liquid – is not very practical. High-pressure storage is practical, but more dangerous.

“Even without ignition,” says Ng, “if there were an explosion of the fuel tank, the pressure alone would be like having a bomb in your car.”

The third way is to use materials that can store and release hydrogen through absorption and de-absorption. This method is far safer, as hydrogen is less flammable within the absorbing material; and by adjusting the pressure and temperature of the storage environment, the uptake and release of hydrogen can be effectively controlled.

Historically, creating such materials has been mostly a matter of trial and error. Ng’s innovation is to use experimentation to establish the thermodynamic properties of candidate materials, create a database from which to identify the most promising ones, and then use computer models and further experimentation in a kind of feedback loop to design and refine the composition of new and better hydrogen-absorbing materials.

Ng has had a long and evolving relationship with hydrogen, each a crucial step in the lead-up to his current work.

Prior to doing his Ph D, Ng had studied the dangers related to the high-pressure storage of hydrogen. For his doctorate at McGill, Ng specialized in hydrogen combustion in its most violent form: detonation.

His post-doctoral work in 2005-06 took Ng to Princeton’s Combustion Laboratory where he focused on the study of hydrogen’s properties.

“That helped broaden my knowledge of how to burn things,” says Ng. “Until then I only knew how to blow things up.”

The following year, Ng went to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge to learn how to use computer modelling to better understand the complex interaction between combustion and the flow of the very fluids – whether gases or liquids – consumed and produced in the chemical reaction.

“Simulating fire is not as easy as you think,” says Ng.

In 2007, Ng was drawn back to Montreal by Concordia’s “strong research groups in materials and thermo-fluids.”

Three months ago, Ng and his colleague Mamoun Medraj began designing and building the experimental apparatus that will enable them to test candidate materials and establish a database.

Ng’s next flirtation with hydrogen will involve a collaboration with three other researchers to generate hydrogen using solar energy.


Concordia University