Sunlight Into Hydrogen: It Works If You Concentrate

Hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element on earth, is nontoxic. If we can use it to operate vehicles, we can reduce our carbon footprint as well as our dependence on oil. Since it does not exist naturally in its molecular form, it must be produced from other sources, typically fossil fuels. Production is rather expensive and usually involves undesirable emissions like carbon dioxide. That’s why Erik Koepf’s design could be so important. It does not produce those unwanted emissions, and the zinc oxide can be reused.

AC Transit Hydrogen Fue Cell Bus

image via AC Transit

If the new solar reactor is successful in testing, Prasad says, “we can imagine a huge array of mirrors out in the desert concentrating sunlight up into a large central tower containing a larger version of Erik’s reactor and making hydrogen on an industrial scale.”

Vehicle manufacturers will surely follow Koepf’s research. Other new breakthroughs in fuel cell technology for cars are already pointing to ways of bringing down the cost of manufacturing, but the system needs to be optimized before hydrogen powered cars will be affordable to the general public. In 2010, the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative was launched with the goal of developing a hydrogen infrastructure in the state. Hydrogen can also be used to power airplanes and boats, and the U.S. military has had investments in hydrogen power for years. Work continues on the challenges of hydrogen fuel storage.

Based in New York City, Leah Jones is a freelance writer with undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and forensic science. She has worked on research in the toxicology field for several years, and she brings her passion for science into the realm of green technology with EarthTechling. Leah has studied English at the graduate level and has authored or co-authored over 30 publications in scientific journals. When she's not writing, Leah enjoys playing music with her husband and teaching music to New York City kids.

  • Casandrita

    Fascinating technological solar energy amplification breakthrough!  Hopefully we can find applications other than hydrogen production.

    Hydrogen production requires inputs to create hydrogen.  Unfortunately, one of the main inputs is water.  I propose that we consider the following key challenges regarding the production of hydrogen, in the middle of the desert, into a form that can be used as an alternative fuel:

    Challenge #1:  Water is typically in short supply in the desert.

    Challenge #2: There are concerns that water scarcity will become the next big global crisis.  Unless these desert installations also include desalinization plants, the undertaking would be using potable water and become as contentious as turning food crop into fuel only worse i.e. turning potable water into fuel in the midst of a global water shortage.

    Challenge #3: So now we have this hydrogen fuel manufacturing facility out in the middle of the desert, which will require vast amounts of fuel (traditional) to ship water (heavy) from where it ‘grows’, followed by a further need for fuel to ship the hydrogen to storage facilities near urban centres where it would be consumed.

    So, while fantastic in the realm of scientific research, undertakings involving hydrogen production seem entirely impractical in reality. In fact, more than just impractical; aside from the contentious use of water, appropriate life-cycle analysis may show that the amount of fuel required to support the logistical aspects of a hydrogen fuel industry, exceeds the amount of fuel produced.

    I propose that systems engineers be brought into the midst of the scientific community to thoroughly evaluate the practicality.  I know that we all like to invent exciting new technologies and that during these challenging economic times even the universities are being pressured to bring innovations to the table that can be commercialised.  I’m just suggesting that lifecycle analysis needs to be conducted beforing charging full speed ahead.

    But don’t give up … :)