Published: June 19, 2014
H2 from sunlight

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced its $20M investment into ten new R&D projects to advance hydrogen production and delivery technologies. The goal is to produce, deliver and dispense hydrogen at less than $4 per gallon gasoline equivalent. Six of the projects focus on hydrogen production while four focus on delivery.

Professor Al Weimer and his colleagues were chosen to receive $2M to develop a novel continuous powder flow solarthermal chemical reactor process to produce hydrogen by splitting water. The focus of the technology is to develop a continuous process that allows robust active materials to flow from a reduction solar reactor to an oxidation solar reactor via a looping process.  A particular consideration is the development of spherical attrition-resistant particles which will be “engineered” to withstand the harsh conditions imposed by the continuous processing.

Various additional aspects of the reaction process to be investigated include the design of the solar field for solar heating, the method for removing oxygen that is released during the process, an investigation of the containment materials to be used for fabricating the solar reactor components, and a continuous improvement of a reactor efficiency and process economics model.    The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is teaming with CU and will provide their high flux solar furnace facility for an on-sun demonstration in order to validate the flowable active materials.

CU is also teaming with the Australian National University (ANU) where Prof. Weimer is an Adjunct Professor and with the Swiss Federal Research Institute (ETH Zurich).   ANU will support research on solar reactor and field modeling and will provide access to their high flux solar simulator to be used for lab reactor studies.   ETHZ, a long term collaborator with the Weimer research group, will provide access to a Gold IR furnace system to be used for active material robustness studies. 

This research, which was highlighted in a recent CU article and in Science, involves concentrating sunlight using a vast field of mirrors and delivering the generated heat to a reactor containing metal oxides.

As a metal oxide compound heats up, it releases oxygen atoms, changing its material composition and causing it to seek out new oxygen atoms. The addition of steam to the system causes oxygen from the water molecules to adhere to the surface of the metal oxide. The result? The freed-up hydrogen molecules can be collected as gas fuel.