University of Delaware researchers experiment with concentrated sunlight to make hydrogen gasApril 6, 2012
Hydrogen fuel cell research in the U.S.
Researchers from the University of Delaware, led by Professor Erik Koepf, have been working on ways to make hydrogen fuel cells more environmentally sound. Fuel cells are often considered clean energy machines because a great deal of attention has been drawn to the fact that the systems themselves produce no harmful emissions. Fuel cells are not stand alone energy systems, however, and they require a source of electricity in order to operate. This electricity is usually provided by burning natural gas, a process that produced carbon dioxide. This makes fuel cells less environmentally friendly than they are often thought to be.
Professor Koepf believes that hybridizing the fuel cell with other alternative energy systems is the solution to this particular problem. Koepf’s team has developed a new reactor that combines concentrated sunlight with zinc oxide powder. The reactor resembles a large cylinder and is comprised of several layers of temperature insulation and other materials. Inside of the cylinder are several hoppers, each of which contains zinc oxide powder. The concept is simple enough: Sunlight is concentrated through the quartz window atop the cylinder and used to super heat the zinc powder, creating zinc vapor. When the zinc vapor is introduced to water, hydrogen is created.
Researchers have succeeded in each step apart from one: Adding sunlight. This process is somewhat complicated despite the abundance of sunlight. In order for the process to work, temperatures within the cylinder must reach 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit – one-third the temperature of the surface of the sun. Professor Koepf and his team are scheduled to conduct the first experiment with sunlight this week and he believes the results will be promising. If the experiment is successful, the problem becomes one of practicality rather than function.
Conventional fuel cells produce an excessive amount of heat. This heat makes fuel cell systems unviable for use outside of an industrial environment. Many companies have been working to commercialize fuel cells and bring them to consumers. These companies are relying on researchers to develop technologies that solve some of the problems inherent with conventional fuel cell design. Koepf’s research may be ground breaking, but it is too early to tell if it can be used to make practical and affordable fuel cells.