Gallery: Scientist Develops Self-Sustaining Solar Reactor That Produces...


Hydrogen is a fuel that has seemingly limitless potential, but scientists have only been able to produce it from fossil fuels, like natural gas. That is, until now. A doctoral student in mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware has designed a new type of reactor that produces hydrogen using nothing more than concentrated sunlight, zinc oxide, and water. And best of all, the zinc oxide used by the reactor can be reused, meaning that once the reactor is up and running, it would be self-sustaining.

Doctoral candidate Erik Koepf designed a large cylindrical reactor that is made of heat-insulating ceramic materials. With some help from gravity, zinc oxide powder is fed into the system from 15 hoppers, and concentrated sunlight enters through a quartz window and the aperture ring.

This week, Koepf will bring his reactor to Switzerland, where it will be tested for the first time at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In the testing phase, concentrated light equal to the energy of 10,000 suns will be focused on the reactor, bringing the temperature up to about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the zinc oxide will be added, creating a reaction that will convert the powder into zinc vapor. Finally, the zinc will be reacted with water, producing hydrogen.

“The idea is to create a small, well-insulated cavity and subject it to highly concentrated sunlight from above,” Koepf explained in a release. If successful, the reactor could represent a major breakthrough, providing a new source of emission-free, completely sustainable fuel. Koepf’s advisor professor Ajay Prasad says he can imagine huge arrays of these devices in the desert producing hydrogen on an industrial scale.


photos © University of Delaware


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  1. Peter Lang September 27, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I made a machine that also uses zinc oxide as a catalyst. instead of sunlight the energy input is 43,000 cps ultrasound. it reacts with a zinc oxide mesoglass to make hydrogen from water on demand.

  2. Brook See September 19, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    I’m with DrDrizzle on this. We have had the ability to isolate hydrogen from water since 1800 using DC power generated from ANY source. I have no idea where the author of this article got the idea hydrogen only comes from fossil fuels?

  3. Tom Scharf March 26, 2013 at 1:32 am

    In the desert?…and where, exactly is all the water going to come from?

  4. WBrooke April 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Dr. Nocera at MIT is doing something very similar, except his system uses cobalt as the catalyst, and does not require concentrating the sunlight 10,000 times. The Nocera system works much like biological photosynthesis, except they stop the reaction at the hydrogen phase rather than reforming that free hydrogen into a sugar like a plant would.

  5. IndifferentAsteroid April 9, 2012 at 2:56 am

    I know one thing..

    THIS IS AWESOME !! << your perception of what is possible and whats not, differentiates you from that awesome dude over there trying to come up with something new..

    In the case of success this might become a new variable in the cycle of global political decision making !! so, cross your fingers ..

  6. sterlingda April 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    These guys are not even close to being the “first”.

  7. JavaTieger April 7, 2012 at 11:33 am

    @DrDrizzle – that is true, but there was not DIRECT way in doing this. Like the name already says, Electrolysis need electrical energy – which is usually generated by photovoltaic cells. This principle is quite ineffective since a photovoltaic cell only transforms (up to) 25% into electricity and you can imagine that you still loose energy in the process of electrolysis.
    By doing it directly it might be possible to have a much higher effectiveness!

  8. DrDrizzle April 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Hydrogen production HAS been possible without the use of fossil fuels for quite some time. Electrolysis can be powered by photovoltaics just as well as a coal plant.

    “the energy of 10,000 suns”? Please elaborate on this.

    I don’t usually comment like this but, I mean, come on.

  9. newsbyrd April 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    There is no doubt that hydrogen is a super-clean fuel. But what is the bi-product of this process? Hopefully not an unstable oxygen molecule! I LOVE this sort of research and believe that it will be the answer to many of our future ills… just a little skeptical.
    Mark Kneubuhl

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