Garbage to Hydrogen, Just Add Sun

We've clearly all got hydrogen on the brain these days. While it promises to be a key resource in our energy tool belt, there's a lot of fluff out there too, coming both from the guys in the White House and the guys in the white lab coats. As a recent Wired article suggests, the hydrogen technology bandwagon carries a motley bunch. Whether hydrogen can be coaxed from water by harnessing the power of lightening bolts with lasers (see the Wired piece) remains to be seen.A city in Saskatchewan is placing its bets on what looks like a worthy candidate for getting hydrogen from the garbage its residents toss out. A local company is forwarding a technology that employs concentrated sunlight to power the production of hydrogen. In a plan that has already received key initial support from local officials, the city of Regina is moving towards an array of these solar-powered units that would convert methane from the local landfill into hydrogen for industrial and potentially fuel purposes.

Hydrogen is easy to produce and exists in great abundance, but isolating hydrogen in a cost effective and sustainable way is the big question mark that has people scratching their heads. Whether powering a fuel cell, functioning as a fuel additive, or in any of its many other industrial applications, the trick with hydrogen is to produce it in a way that doesn’t require more non-renewable energy than is embodied in the end product. Solar has always been an intriguing solution—joining the abundant energy of the sun with the abundance of hydrogen seems like a natural fit.

Solar Hydrogen Energy’s solar-powered unit positions a chemical reactor over a parabolic mirror that concentrates sunlight to create temperatures exceeding 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (a working prototype is pictured above). An iris at the opening of the reaction chamber modulates the incoming sunlight. The company reports that the reactors have the ability to produce hydrogen from waste gas such as methane, as well as from plain water.

A variety of technologies harness the sun with mirrors to do things like focus light on solar cells, run Sterling engines, or even roast coffee, but few if any use the concentrated energy to fuel the reaction that produces hydrogen. The proposed installation at the Regina landfill would consist of 30 such units, and is estimated to reduce 25% of the city’s greenhouse gasses, bringing it close to meeting Kyoto standards with the single facility. When fully operational, the array would create over 2.6 million lbs of hydrogen per year and dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog-forming emissions released from the landfill. A $6 million dollar demonstration project is already getting approval from local government and would pave the way for the full-scale facility. It remains to be seen if the project in Regina will set the standard for sustainable hydrogen production. It may not be quite as dramatic as capturing lightening with lasers, but at least we wouldn’t have to wait so long between thunderstorms. :: Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation Ltd.

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