In the past I’ve talked about high temperature cracking of water to produce hydrogen at nuclear facilities. I’ve also talked about using algae to produce hydrogen. Now, two U. S. national laboratories are on a concurrent path to see who can produce the most H2 efficiently and cost-effectively.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL), who I have spoken of before, has developed a solid-oxide electrolysis cell the size of a CD and 150 microns in width to help with the nuclear high temperature cracking of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
The creation of the new electrodes and electrolytes at INL are part of the High Temperature Electrolysis Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative. The new cells have an operating temperature of around 800 degrees C.
Now, the other national laboratory making news headlines along with the University of Tennessee (UT) is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Knoxville, TN. The scientists and researchers there are developing high temperature photosynthesis of algae in order to create massive amounts of hydrogen. The team lead is university professor Barry Bruce.
According to the UT press release, “A major benefit of Bruce’s method is that it cuts out two key middlemen in the process of using plants’ solar conversion abilities. The first middle man is the time required for a plant to capture solar energy, grow and reproduce, then die and eventually become fossil fuel. The second middle man is energy, in this case the substantial amount of energy required to cultivate, harvest and process plant material into biofuel. Bypassing these two options and directly using the plant or algae’s built-in solar system to create clean fuel can be a major step forward.
“Bruce and his colleagues found that by starting with a thermophilic blue-green algae, which favors warmer temperatures, they could sustain the reaction at temperatures as high as 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F. That is roughly the temperature in arid deserts with high solar irradiation, where the process would be most productive. They also found the process was more than 10 times more efficient as the temperature increased.”
Whether it is thermonuclear cracking of water or high temperature photosynthesis of algae, both methods need to be pursued vigorously in an effort to produce hydrogen on a massive scale and in a predictable manner. When hydrogen cars start rolling out in larger numbers in 2015, the hydrogen producers need to be ready with alternatives to steam reforming of natural gas, the current most popular method of producing H2.