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EPFL scientists devise simple system for reversible conversion of H2 into formic acid

EPFL scientists have devised a solution for the reversible conversion of hydrogen gas into formic acid (a liquid) for easier storage and transport. The simple system is based on two chemical reactions.

The first reaction transforms hydrogen into formic acid, a liquid that is easy to store and less flammable than gasoline, while the second reaction does the reverse and restores the hydrogen. Another possible application of their technology would be to use atmospheric CO2 to synthesize a number of useful chemical products.

Gabor Laurenczy’s team has already developed a process for transforming formic acid into hydrogen gas. The method was the subject of several articles, one of which appeared in Science, and it is currently under industrial development. But a complete and coherent system would also require the inverse process: transforming hydrogen into formic acid. This has now been achieved, completing the cycle, thanks to the financial support of EOS Holding. The scientists in Laurenczy’s team have described the process in an open access paper in Nature Communications.

The researchers synthesized formic acid in a single step, starting with hydrogen and atmospheric CO2. Conventional methods to accomplish this involve several steps, which are complicated to carry out and generate undesirable chemical byproducts.

The two chemical reactions—hydrogen to formic acid and back to hydrogen—are catalytic: the advantage is that nothing is lost in the transformation, and the process can thus be used in constructing sustainable devices.

With their two catalytic reactions, the researchers now possess all the technology they need to build a complete, integrated device. Laurenczy envisions small energy storage units in which the current from photovoltaic cells produces hydrogen by electrolysis, which is then transformed and stored as formic acid, and finally transformed back into hydrogen to produce electricity at night-time.

The procedure is simple enough that it can be implemented at the domestic level, he said.

Another possible application of this technology would be to use atmospheric CO2, a greenhouse gas, as a building-block for chemical synthesis. Formic acid is the basis of numerous organic syntheses, e.g. in the textile industry.


  • Séverine Moret, Paul J. Dyson & Gábor Laurenczy (2014) “Direct synthesis of formic acid from carbon dioxide by hydrogenation in acidic media,” Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4017 doi: 10.1038/ncomms5017

  • Albert Boddien, Dörthe Mellmann, Felix Gärtner, Ralf Jackstell, Henrik Junge, Paul J. Dyson, Gábor Laurenczy, Ralf Ludwig, and Matthias Beller (2011) “Efficient Dehydrogenation of Formic Acid Using an Iron Catalyst,” Science doi: 10.1126/science.1206613



There are two critical questions:
Firstly and most importantly, what is the round trip efficiency?
Secondly, is the device to reform the formic acid back to hydrogen lightweight and compact?
Because if it is, the formic acid could be reformed on board instead of at the petrol station.


That does deal with the hydrogen storage problem, though the hydrogen content of formic acid (about 4.5%) is well below the DOE's 7wt% target for H2 storage systems.

If all you have to do is store CO2 for recycling, all that leaves is the production systems, the catalysts (what's their cost and lifespan?), and the fuel cells.  Wait, all you lost was the 700-bar tanks, and gained new catalysts.  Is this really any better?


If the round trip efficiency is not good then they will likely be looking for opportunities to use the waste heat to make it cost effective so if that is the case it seems more likely to re-generate the hydrogen on-site than on-board.


Even with its rather low 65% apparent efficiency, H2 generation by electrolysis becomes economical when done with very low cost surplus normally unused clean e-energy such as wind, solar, Nuke, hydro etc.

H2 short and long term storage is still a challenge but important steps are being taken in Germany to solve this problem.

1. Bumping excess H2 into NG distribution network is a strong possibility.
2. Local storage into specialized H2 tanks for FCEVs quick fill ups is a win-win solution.
3. Selling excess H2 to chemical and steel industries.
4. Transforming excess H2 into other types of fuel for aircraft, trains, ships etc.

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