- Existing solar thermochemical hydrogen production systems have low efficiency, but MIT’s design could harness up to 40% of solar heat for hydrogen generation.
- The breakthrough system relies solely on renewable solar energy, reducing hydrogen production costs and making it a scalable, green energy solution.
- MIT plans to build a prototype for testing in concentrated solar power facilities, funded by the Department of Energy, aiming to advance sustainable hydrogen production.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have designed a system that can efficiently produce ‘solar thermochemical hydrogen.’ It harnesses the sun’s heat to split water and generate hydrogen – a clean fuel that emits no greenhouse gas emissions.
In a study appearing in Solar Energy Journal, the engineers lay out the conceptual design for a system that can efficiently produce “solar thermochemical hydrogen.” The system harnesses the sun’s heat to directly split water and generate hydrogen – a clean fuel that can power long-distance trucks, ships, and planes, while in the process emitting no greenhouse gas emissions.
Today, hydrogen is largely produced through processes that involve natural gas and other fossil fuels, making the otherwise green fuel more of a “grey” energy source when considered from the start of its production to its end use. In contrast, solar thermochemical hydrogen, or STCH, offers a totally emissions-free alternative, as it relies entirely on renewable solar energy to drive hydrogen production. But so far, existing STCH designs have limited efficiency: Only about 7 percent of incoming sunlight is used to make hydrogen. The results so far have been low-yield and high-cost.
In a big step toward realizing solar-made fuels, the MIT team estimates its new design could harness up to 40 percent of the sun’s heat to generate that much more hydrogen. The increase in efficiency could drive down the system’s overall cost, making STCH a potentially scalable, affordable option to help decarbonize the transportation industry.
The study’s lead author, Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT said, “We’re thinking of hydrogen as the fuel of the future, and there’s a need to generate it cheaply and at scale. We’re trying to achieve the Department of Energy’s goal, which is to make green hydrogen by 2030, at $1 per kilogram. To improve the economics, we have to improve the efficiency and make sure most of the solar energy we collect is used in the production of hydrogen.”
Ghoniem’s study co-authors are Aniket Patankar, first author and MIT postdoc; Harry Tuller, MIT professor of materials science and engineering; Xiao-Yu Wu of the University of Waterloo; and Wonjae Choi at Ewha Womans University in South Korea.
Similar to other proposed designs, the MIT system would be paired with an existing source of solar heat, such as a concentrated solar plant (CSP) – a circular array of hundreds of mirrors that collect and reflect sunlight to a central receiving tower. An STCH system then absorbs the receiver’s heat and directs it to split water and produce hydrogen. This process is very different from electrolysis, which uses electricity instead of heat to split water.
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