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CHIPS Articles: Solar-Powered, Non-Fossil Fuel Hydrogen Sponge

Solar-Powered, Non-Fossil Fuel Hydrogen Sponge
Hydrogen gas could be ideal replacement for fossil fuels in expeditionary warfare
By Patric Petrie, lead writer, SSC Pacific - April-June 2017
Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion is a current news topic amid concerns about climate change and global warming, and is the largest contributor to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

According to the Institute for Energy Research, 82 percent of America’s energy is produced from the combustion of fossil fuels.

It is believed that hydrogen gas is an ideal replacement for fossil fuels; however, hydrogen gas is difficult to safely store and is currently either produced from fossil fuel processes or captured as a byproduct from natural gas and petroleum conversion. Both processes contribute to global carbon emissions.

Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific researchers have developed a solar-powered, non-fossil fuel means of generating, safely storing, and recovering hydrogen gas, the “Hydrogen Sponge.”

SSC Pacific’s patented hydrogen sponge concept can be used to generate and safely store hydrogen gas for use in an integrated or stand-alone fuel cell as well as other hydrogen-based technologies, without the use of fossil fuel energy.

The substrate consists of micro-chambers that provide micro-structure for both electrodes, and reservoirs for the collection and safe storage of hydrogen gas.

The micro-chambers are engineered to allow hydrogen gas to be collected and stored without compression to minimize the risk of combustion due to impact or spark. The process is as follows:

  1. The sponge is placed in sunlight and an ionic fluid (such as seawater, catalyzed greywater or wastewater), and uses solar-powered water electrolysis to generate hydrogen.
  2. The hydrogen gas is then safely stored in the substrate micro-chambers.
  3. The stored hydrogen can be released as needed by increasing pressure in the micro-chambers through mechanical, electrical or thermal means.

In theory, a nine-inch array of solar cells integrated with the substrate micro-chambers can generate and store sufficient hydrogen for use in a fuel cell providing 2.5 joules of usable power each second.

This number could be increased by stacking multiple wafers, optimizing the micro-chamber size, or engineering more micro-chambers per square inch on a wafer.

SSC Pacific scientist Russel Clement and his research team began working with the Marine Corps in January 2015 to develop new expeditionary energy concepts. These concepts include technologies to forage and better manage energy in expeditionary theaters of operation.

The idea is that this type of technology can be used to generate and safely store energy in the form of hydrogen without a significant logistics tail.

As Clement explains, in theater, the Marines would be supplied with a compact, lightweight system for generating and safely storing hydrogen from saltwater, wastewater, greywater, brackish water, or water they couldn’t otherwise drink or use.

“You’d put a little powdered material in the water to make it ionic, if needed,” Clement explains. “And then you use this device to separate hydrogen and oxygen. The stored hydrogen could then be used by a compact fuel cell to generate electricity. Beneficial by-products of the fuel cell would also include fresh water and residual heat.”

The device is designed to be modular and stackable, capable of inexpensively storing and generating a significant amount of energy in a much lighter and safer manner than lithium battery technology.

SSC Pacific is also looking for opportunities to commercialize the technology.

Aside from meeting expeditionary energy needs, obvious commercial applications include everything from products for camping survivalist-type activities to a safe method of residential energy storage. Hydrogen sponge technology would allow a homeowner to place devices in a reservoir of water (such as an under-utilized swimming pool) for storing energy from roof-mounted solar panels and then reclaiming it when needed. Clement envisions his device as a residential energy storage alternative to Tesla Corp’s Powerwall technology.

The Way Ahead

Within the next three years, Clement and his team intend to develop a small business research effort, such as a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with a university, or a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract, to get the prototype designed and built. Larger scale demonstrations and engineering/ production prototypes would then follow that lead to a fully commercialized family of hydrogen generation and storage products for both military and civilian use.

Energy storage and recovery cycle using the Hydrogen Sponge. SSC Pacific diagram
Energy storage and recovery cycle using the Hydrogen Sponge. SSC Pacific diagram
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