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