Novel Device Produces Hydrogen Efficiently Using Sunlight

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The panel generates a record 250 liters (66 gal) of hydrogen per day that can be used to provide local electricity

Scientists at KU Leuven in Belgium developed a device that combines incoming solar energy and water vapor from the surrounding air to produce average of 250 liters (66 gal) of hydrogen throughout the year. According to the researchers’ estimations, an array of 20 such panels paired with an underground pressurized tank could provide the totality of a household’s entire electricity and heating needs for a modest price. However, utilization of solar energy is associated with challenges such as managing reserves. Moreover, lithium-ion batteries lose capacity with use and slowly self-discharge with disuse.

Professor Johan Martens and his team have turned to hydrogen for a cheaper, year-round green energy alternative. Their device can currently conduct energy conversion of 15 percent. Commercial solar panels can easily surpass that figure, often reaching 18 or 20 percent, but the advantage of this approach is that large amounts of hydrogen can be stored in an underground pressurized tank without the inevitable losses in capacity that come with battery technology. Using fuel cells, the reserves from the tank can then be converted at will into heating, electricity, or fuel for a hydrogen-powered car with 90%conversion efficiency.

Hydrogen is often produced from non-green sources such as gas and oil, and it’s also expensive to produce and store. The researchers estimate that an array of 20 panels and four cubic meters of pressurized storage would meet the energy and heating needs (in Belgium) of a household throughout the year, with the assumption that the reserves will build up during the summer months and last through the winter. A prototype of this setup will soon begin field testing on a property in the rural Belgian town of Oud-Heverlee.

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Bill Carr is a Senior Editor at Plains Gazette, based in Austin. Previously he has worked for FOX Sports and MSNBC's "Morning Joe." he is a graduate of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. You can reach Bill via email or by phone