A University of Delaware engineer’s solar-powered, hydrogen-producing reactor may solve the energy crisis.
We live in an era that has seen more technological progress than all the centuries before it combined but we are still at the mercy of batteries and hydrocarbons (fossil fuels such as gasoline). (There are already vehicles running on hydrogen such as the Honda FCX Clarity, available in California, and the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, supported by a network of hydrogen-fueling stations.) While green energy sources are slowly replacing more carbon intensive sources such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas, (one of) the ultimate goal is to use a fuel source such as hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element (though not on Earth itself).
On Earth, the issue is that hydrogen isn’t found in abundance in its natural form. The easiest method of obtaining hydrogen is by performing electrolysis on water, which is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (hence H2O) to produce H2 (hydrogen) and O2 (oxygen). Thus, to make use of hydrogen, it must be separated or broken down from more complex elements and this typically requires a larger net amount of energy than would be obtained from the hydrogen itself when used as a fuel, thereby defeating the purpose.
Now, a mechanical engineer Erik Koepf at the University of Delaware may have found the first sustainable reactor capable of producing pure hydrogen for fuel. The reactor uses solar energy along with zinc oxide (ZnO) and water (H2O) to create a reaction that produces hydrogen. The entire reaction process is carbon-free, making it clean for the environment.
The reactor works by using a common concept: the solar oven. Using solar energy, which is abundant in many areas on Earth, the reactor is heated to 3,000° F/1,649° C, which causes gravity-fed zinc oxide to vaporize into a zinc vapor. The vapor is then separated and reacted with water to produce hydrogen.
The reaction is as follows:
Reaction #1: 2(ZnO) [zinc oxide] + heat [3,000° F] → 2(Zn) [zinc] + (O2) [oxygen]
Reaction #2: 2(Zn) [zinc] + 2(H2O) [water] → 2(ZnO) [zinc oxide] + 2(H2) [hydrogen]
The zinc oxide produced by Reaction #2 is then reused again and the process starts over, sustaining itself.
2012-04-18 UPDATE: The hydrogen is then burned to release energy with the byproduct of pure water.
2(H2) [hydrogen] + O2 [oxygen, required to "burn" anything] → energy + 2(H2O) [pure water]
The reactor prototype, which is only 2×3 feet, but weighs a gargantuan 1,750 lbs. will be undergoing testing in Zurich in the coming weeks where it will be subjected to the equivalent of light from 10,000 suns. This testing will determine how efficient it is at producing hydrogen as well as its durability. If testing proves successful, the design will be scaled up for industrial use.
While this won’t immediately solve the energy crisis (infrastructure and other things will need to be changed over decades), it will certainly speed the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy. (Cue X-Files/big oil conspiracy theorists…)
With advances such as this solar reactor, hopefully we’ll see a clean fuel source in widespread use in our lifetimes.