New Process Efficiently Uses Solar to Produce Hydrogen

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Not long ago, we heard a great deal about the “hydrogen economy.” While the prospect of using hydrogen for vehicle fuel, as well as other energy storage functions, is not dead, it has faded into the background as a number of technical hurdles need to be overcome.

Cost is one factor, especially as battery costs continue to fall. A battery will never be able to deliver the amount of energy capacity per pound as hydrogen, though with battery-powered vehicle ranges in excess of 200 miles, that might be good enough for many applications. Heavier vehicles like trucks, trains and airplanes will likely need some other approach for which hydrogen still has great potential. But another problem facing hydrogen is where to get it in the first place.

Both of the most common methods, electrolysis and natural gas reforming, have issues. Electrolysis — applying electric current to water to break it into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen — is straightforward and clean. However the amount of energy required for this is quite high.

Natural gas reforming, as the name implies, takes in natural gas and generally uses steam to extract hydrogen from it. As of now, natural gas is abundant and quite inexpensive. However, the process emits CO2 as a by-product — which, to some extent, defeats the purpose of producing a clean fuel.

Now, a company called HyperSolar claims to have developed a commercially-scalable method of producing hydrogen using only sunlight and water.

The photoelectrochemical process, which HyperSolar claims was inspired by photosynthesis, uses a self-contained hydrogen generator: Water flows through, and hydrogen and oxygen are extracted at the cathode and anode, respectively, while sunlight enters from above.

If all the company did was use solar as the energy source for electrolysis, that wouldn’t be anything new. The amount of solar power required would still be cost prohibitive. But the HyperSolar system has two distinct advantages.

First, it facilitates a more complete transfer of energy into each hydrogen molecule. This provides a great deal more stored energy for each unit of energy input, which greatly reduces cost. Secondly, unlike conventional electrolysis systems, which require purified water, this system can use ocean water, waste water or just about any other water source. This is crucial as water has become as critical an issue as energy, and in some places even more so.

How is this accomplished? The HyperSolar technology is based on two breakthroughs. The company developed a nanoparticle that is designed to mimic natural photosynthesis in the way that it absorbs sunlight, as well as provide integrated anode and cathode areas that efficiently split the water and transfer electrons into the molecular hydrogen bonds. This process effectively captures far more of the sun’s energy and transforms it into hydrogen than other approaches. Furthermore, each particle is encapsulated in a protective coating that allows it to be submerged under water without corrosion or short-circuiting. This allows the particles to be used in a wide range of water conditions.

The combination of these two elements provide a distinctive economic advantage. But is it enough to relaunch the hydrogen economy? Only time will tell.

Image credit: Pixabay

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

6 responses

  1. This has clearly worked out for the human species! We made 50mpg vehicles and what do people do with that , drive them 2-3x more/further. We find ways to produce more efficient power and what do humans do with that , they consume 2-5x the amount they used to then! Do you see the real problem here. Maybe we start forcing people to stop wasteful use! Start making people that feel they can waste even more now , go without until they get back to being efficient themselves! They consume 6 months of power in a month then they go 5 months without, doesn’t matter how much money they have (just worthless paper system that has no real value anyhow). Its high time people do without to remind them that they are the wasteful and the real problem! No amount of efficiency will ever over come being wasteful so make them who are wasteful go without! How exactly are we such a advance species as we are not smart enough to stop producing in efficient engines when we have the means to make all vehicles get much better mileage or keep wasteful limited resource use high making millions of different parts for engines when they all do the very same thing! 6k different alternators that all do the same job but have to be made differently..same with power steering pumps/racks/brakes/rims/water pumps.Hell same 4 wheel vehicles over and over just different molded designs which brings even more differently needed parts. same devices as washers/stoves/lawn mowers too…Maybe its clear the human species isn’t as advanced as it thinks!Maybe we have just stalled out and cant go any further. We don’t seem to learn from our history and we are always creating the same destruction to this one rock we have to live on without changing!If anything we make it much worse as time goes on, in a bubble that we cant live without!

  2. I would also be curious about the use in desalination. Would it be easier/cheaper to move hydrogen gas from the ocean to an area suffering a drought than to try to move water. Hydrogen could then be recomind=ed with oxygen to make water for the deserts. Salinity of the ocean would not be affected outside of the immediate area (a problem considered by a Mexican desalination plant a few years ago).

  3. Actually our greatest problem with hydrogen is not that it’s difficult to get (it’s the most plentiful element in the universe) it’s the fact that it reacts extremely violently with Oxygen. Explosively so. It’s why we want to use it as a fuel since it’s byproduct is water and its energy potential is greater than any fossil fuel. Once we solve the storage problem, everything else is trivial in comparison.

  4. I own Hyper Solar Stock
    interesting
    Two articles about two different research groups this week about using these methods to produce hydrogen.
    And then using the hydrogen to feed genetically engineered bacteria that produce liquid fuels.
    By passing the lack of hydrogen infrastructure.

    Nearly all energy humans use is solar energy including the food we eat.
    Nature does provide the answers.

  5. Smoke and mirrors. This process runs at about 1/10 the efficiency of using solar cells to split water. If you go by price, it’s a different story, this process is VERY cheap. However, it needs 100 acres to produce enough hydrogen to power a house, which can be done with one roof top solar array.

  6. In an old abandoned steel tanks ; hydrogen bubbles can be seen evolving from an area covered with rain water and exposed to the sun.This is because rust is an excellent catalyst for splitting water to produce clean hydrogen using photosynthesis .The hydrogen produced by natural gas reforming contains few percent of carbon monoxide that can poison the fuel cell catalyst and so needs further processing to make it clean. At the moment intensive research works is undergoing all over the world trying to improve the efficiency photosynthesis process.

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