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UCI’S HYDROGEN BATTERY

HYDROGEN STORAGE promises to make renewable energy sources more efficient. The University of California Irvine is at the forefront of this hydrogen battery research and, in fact, it has already turned theory into campus practice.

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The problem. Renewable energy from wind or the sun doesn’t always match our energy needs. The wind can’t be diverted for our use in doldrums. Solar power at noon isn’t useful the next evening. The key to exploiting either renewable is efficient energy storage.

Traditional storage of electric energy has relied upon chemical batteries, but not without shortcomings. Charging and discharging such devices reduces their chemical activity. In time, even advanced batteries wear out. Batteries for large-scale applications such as long-term energy storage aren’t particularly compact. Nor are they especially environment-friendly.

Hydrogen storage. By contrast, a tank storing hydrogen doesn’t wear out by being emptied or refilled. What’s more, the tank is much lighter, more compact and less chemically complex than a conventional battery.

In something of a chicken-or-egg situation, producing the hydrogen calls for nothing more than water–and electricity. The process of electrolysis is known to anyone recalling high school science: Apply a current to H2O, and the hydrogen and oxygen bubble out.

Thus, for long-term storage of solar or wind energy, the plan is to use this energy to generate electricity. Then employ any electricity not needed immediately into electrolyzing water and producing hydrogen. Last, store the hydrogen until it’s needed.

The hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity on demand (as in an FCEV, Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle). Or it can be added to existing natural gas lines.

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UCI researcher Jack Brouwer, right, explains the technology of converting solar energy into hydrogen. This and the following photos by Nick Agro, The Orange County Register

The challenge. Jack Brouwer and his team at University of California Irvine are working to make this process efficient enough to compete with traditional means of energy storage. The Orange County Register, December 1, 2016, gave details of this in ”UCI Tries Solving This Problem: We Have Sun and Wind, But How Do We Store It?”

The UCI approach begins with solar energy producing electricity. Then comes the electrolyzer using this electricity to generate hydrogen.

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The electrolyzer unit at UCI is rather more complex than a high school demonstration, but it’s conceptually similar.

The UCI electrolyzer performs highly optimized electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. It’s akin, though, to the high school experiment using a dish of water, a DC current and hydrogen bubbling off the cathode, oxygen off the anode.

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The resulting hydrogen is fed into existing natural gas lines on campus.

At UCI, the electrolyzer’s hydrogen gas enters a fuel gas bypass, part of the university’s natural gas supply. There, it’s part of the campus’s heating of classrooms, labs and dorms.

UCI isn’t the only institution investigating the concept of hydrogen batteries. The Orange County Register notes that researchers in Germany and Canada are looking to develop similar technologies.

Making solar and wind facilities more economically viable is seen as a significant step away from fossil fuels. Brouwer says, “It will become the most important technology for enabling a 100-percent renewable future.”

And, on a related note, I like the idea of the hydrogen battery saving up renewables for refueling fuel-cell vehicles. They’re part of the future too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

One comment on “UCI’S HYDROGEN BATTERY

  1. sabresoftware
    December 4, 2016

    The use of hydrogen to store energy generated from solar/wind makes sense, and goes a long way to making these technologies more viable. The hydrogen can then be used in fcvs as you mentioned, or even converted back to electricity by static fuel cell powered generators when needed.

    But there are issues with the alternate technologies too. Windmills kill birds, and as we are finding out as they start to proliferate they are also causing problems with humans. People living in relatively close proximity to windmill farms have complained about the effects of pressure waves around the blades. And while a windmill or two might be a novelty, large swaths of windmills aren’t exactly the most attractive scenery.

    Solar generated on a large scale, as opposed to supplementary generation such as a few panels on a house to help with home demands, also commands large realestate.

    Also fossil sources such as oil and gas supply many chemicals and products that we use in our modern world. Finding substitutes for all these chemicals might prove challenging if we try to venture away from fossil sources.

    Just think of styrofoam products that are used to provide insulation to make buildings more energy efficient.

    Changing our world isn’t as simple as some would have us believe.

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