Hydrogen on the Cheap
Posted by ssbg on June 6, 2006
Splitting Molecules: This prototype system from GE has the potential to make hydrogen at a cost on par with gasoline.
Last month, we took an in-depth look at alternative fuels. Among them was Earth’s most abundant element, hydrogen. Although its future looks bright—the only by-product of a hydrogen fuel cell is water, and experts believe they can one day be used to create electricity to fuel cars—the cost and energy required to create hydrogen has taken it out of the running as a near-term energy alternative to oil.
That may be about to change. Researchers at GE’s Global Research lab in Niskayuna, NY, have developed a system that produces hydrogen at a fraction of the cost and could be available commercially in just a few years.
The basic process, electrolysis, is nothing new: Combine water with an electrolyte, and run current through the solution, forcing the water molecules to split into hydrogen and oxygen gases. But electrolysis-formed hydrogen has long been hampered by the high capital cost of the metals used in the process, around “thousands of dollars per kilowatt,” says Richard Bourgeois, GE’s electrolysis project leader. GE’s breakthrough comes from a proprietary material called Noryl, a highly chemical- and temperature-resistant plastic developed by the GE labs, that lowers the cost of hydrogen production to hundreds of dollars per kilowatt, according to Bourgeois.
Although GE has only built a prototype in their lab, Bourgeois believes that demonstrations can come as soon as the end of next year, and commercialization will follow that. The goal of the project, according to Bourgeois, is to bring down equipment costs enough to take the cost of hydrogen from $8 per kilogram to $3 per kilogram—comparable in energy and price to a gallon of gasoline.
Currently, Hydrogen production is also limited to industrial refineries and agricultural areas, where the gas is produced on-site using methane, says Bourgeois. GE’s system—which, at approximately 10’ x 20’, can fit in a small trailer—could be marketed to smaller-scale industries. And one day, Bourgeois sees a future when drivers fill their hydrogen-fuel-cell powered cars from pumps with built-in electrolyzers. If electricity needed to produce the hydrogen is wind- or solar-generated, the entire process is, essentially, emissions-free.—Erin McCarthy