System to Efficiently Produce Solar Thermochemical Hydrogen

System to Efficiently Produce Solar Thermochemical Hydrogen
In a study recently published, engineers lay out the conceptual design for a system that can efficiently produce “solar thermochemical hydrogen.”
Technology Briefing


Most conventional systems for producing hydrogen depend on fossil fuels, but a new system developed by MIT engineers uses only solar energy. This process involves a new, train-like system of reactors that is driven solely by the sun. In a study recently published in Solar Energy Journal, these engineers lay out the conceptual design for a system that can efficiently produce “solar thermochemical hydrogen.”

The system harnesses the sun’s heat to directly split water, producing clean hydrogen fuel that can power long-distance trucks, ships, and planes, while emitting no greenhouse gases. Today, hydrogen is largely produced from natural gas and other fossil fuels, making the otherwise green fuel more of a “grey” energy source when considered from the start of its production to its end use.

In contrast, solar thermo chemical hydrogen (or STCH) offers a totally emissions free alternative. But so far, existing STCH designs have demonstrated limited efficiency. In fact, only about 7 percent of incoming sunlight is captured as hydrogen fuel. That means the technology is low-yield and high-cost. However, in a big step toward realizing cost-effective solar-made fuels, the MIT team estimates its new design could harness up to 40 percent of the sun’s heat to generate much more hydrogen.

This increase in efficiency could drive down the system’s overall cost, making STCH a potentially scalable, affordable option to help decarbonize the transportation industry. According to the researchers, “We’re thinking of hydrogen as the fuel of the future, and there’s a need to generate it cheaply and at scale. We’re trying to achieve the Department of Energy’s goal, which is to make green hydrogen by 2030, at $1 per kilogram.

To improve the economics, we have to improve the efficiency, and make sure most of the solar energy we collect is used in the production of hydrogen.” Similar to other proposed designs, the MIT system would be paired with an existing source of solar heat, such as a concentrated solar plant (or CSP) which uses a circular array of hundreds of mirrors that collect and reflect sunlight to a central receiving tower. An STCH system would then absorb the reseed recipe and direct it to split water and produce hydrogen.

This process is very different from electrolysis, which instead uses electricity to split water. At the heart of this conceptual STCH system is a two-step thermo-chemical reaction. In the first step water, in the form of steam, is exposed to a metal. This causes the metal to grab oxygen from the steam, leaving hydrogen behind. This metal oxidation is similar to the rusting of iron in the presence of water but it occurs much faster. Once hydrogen is separate the oxidized, or rusted metal, is heated in a vacuum which acts to reverse the rusting process and regenerate the metal.

With the oxygen removed, the metal can be cooled and exposed to steam again to produce more hydrogen. This process can be repeated hundreds of times. The IT system is designed to optimize this process. The system as a whole resembles a train of box-shape reactors running on a circular track. In practice, this track would be set around a solar thermal source such as a CSV tower.

The reactors in the train would house the metal that undergoes the reversible rusting process. Each reactor would first pass through a hot station where it would be exposed to the sun’s heat at temperatures of up to 1500 degrees Celsius. This extreme heat would effectively pull oxygen out of a reactor’s metal. That metal would then be in a reduced state ready to grab oxygen from steam. For this to happen, the reactor would move to a cooler station at temperatures around 1,000 C, where it would be exposed to steam to produce hydrogen.

Other similar STCH concepts have run up against a common obstacle: what to do with the heat released by the reduced reactor as it is cooled. Without recovering and reusing this heat, the system’s efficiency is too low to be practical. A second challenge has to do with creating an energy-efficient vacuum where metal can “derust.” Some prototypes generate a vacuum using mechanical pumps, but these pumps are too energy-intensive and costly for largescale hydrogen production.

To address these challenges, the MIT design incorporates several energy-saving workarounds. To recover most of the heat that would otherwise escape from the system, reactors on opposite sides of the circular track are allowed to exchange heat through thermal radiation; hot reactors get cooled while cool reactors get heated. This keeps the heat within the system.

The researchers also added a second set of reactors that would circle around the first train, moving in the opposite direction. This outer train of reactors would operate at generally cooler temperatures and would be used to evacuate oxygen from the hotter inner train, without the need for energy-consuming mechanical pumps. These outer reactors would carry a second type of metal that can also easily oxidize. As they circle around, the outer reactors would absorb oxygen from the inner reactors, effectively de-rusting the original metal, without having to use energy-intensive vacuum pumps.

Both reactor trains would run continuously and would generate separate streams of pure hydrogen and oxygen. When the researchers carried out detailed simulations of the conceptual design, they found that it would boost the efficiency of solar thermochemical hydrogen production, from 7 percent to 40 percent.

In the next year, the team will be building a prototype of the system to test at existing concentrated solar power facilities located at Department of Energy laboratories. When fully implemented, this system would be housed in a little building in the middle of a solar field. Inside the building, there could be one or more trains each having about 50 reactors. And it would be a modular system, where reactors could be added to a conveyor belt, scaling up hydrogen production.


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