Published on August 2nd, 2013 | by James Ayre


Radically New Technique To Produce Hydrogen Fuel From Water

August 2nd, 2013 by  

A radically new way of producing hydrogen fuel from water — one that wasn’t even thought to be possible — has been developed by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. The researchers think that this new technique/system could pave the way for the mainstream use of hydrogen as a fuel.

The new technique is, essentially, is simply an enormous solar-thermal system — sunlight is concentrated on a tall central tower by a large array of mirrors, which heats the tower to temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, this heat is then redirected into a reactor containing chemical compounds known as metal oxides. As the metal oxide compound heats up, it then releases oxygen atoms, which change its material composition, causing the newly formed compound to seek out new oxygen atoms. With the “addition of steam to the system — which could be produced by boiling water in the reactor with the concentrated sunlight beamed to the tower — it would cause oxygen from the water molecules to adhere to the surface of the metal oxide, freeing up hydrogen molecules for collection as hydrogen gas.”

“We have designed something here that is very different from other methods and frankly something that nobody thought was possible before,” stated lead researcher and CU-Boulder Professor Alan Weimer. “Splitting water with sunlight is the Holy Grail of a sustainable hydrogen economy.”

splitting hydrogen with sunlight

“An artist’s conception of a commercial hydrogen production plant that uses sunlight to split water in order to produce clean hydrogen fuel.”
Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

As the researchers note, the key distinction between this new method and previous ones is that the new one makes it possible to conduct two chemical reactions at the same temperature. “While there are no working models, conventional theory holds that producing hydrogen through the metal oxide process requires heating the reactor to a high temperature to remove oxygen, then cooling it to a low temperature before injecting steam to re-oxidize the compound in order to release hydrogen gas for collection.”

“The more conventional approaches require the control of both the switching of the temperature in the reactor from a hot to a cool state and the introduction of steam into the system,” stated Associate Professor Charles Musgrave. “One of the big innovations in our system is that there is no swing in the temperature. The whole process is driven by either turning a steam valve on or off.”

“Just like you would use a magnifying glass to start a fire, we can concentrate sunlight until it is really hot and use it to drive these chemical reactions,” stated Christopher Muhich, a doctoral student at University of Colorado Boulder. “While we can easily heat it up to more than 1,350 degrees Celsius, we want to heat it to the lowest temperature possible for these chemical reactions to still occur. Hotter temperatures can cause rapid thermal expansion and contraction, potentially causing damage to both the chemical materials and to the reactors themselves.”

Something else to note — the conventional two-step process for water splitting is rather inefficient, wasting both time and heat. And as Weimer points out: “There are only so many hours of sunlight in a day.” So it’d be better not to waste those hours on inefficiency.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has more:

With the new CU-Boulder method, the amount of hydrogen produced for fuel cells or for storage is entirely dependent on the amount of metal oxide — which is made up of a combination of iron, cobalt, aluminum and oxygen — and how much steam is introduced into the system. One of the designs proposed by the team is to build reactor tubes roughly a foot in diameter and several feet long, fill them with the metal oxide material and stack them on top of each other. A working system to produce a significant amount of hydrogen gas would require a number of the tall towers to gather concentrated sunlight from several acres of mirrors surrounding each tower.

While the new technique sounds very promising now, it’s taken two years of hard work for the researchers to get to this point: “When we saw that we could use this simpler, more effective method, it required a change in our thinking,” stated Weimer. “We had to develop a theory to explain it and make it believable and understandable to other scientists and engineers.”

Regardless of the great potential of the new technique, the commercialization is probably still a couple of years off, according to the researchers. “With the price of natural gas so low, there is no incentive to burn clean energy,” stated Weimer, who’s also the executive director of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels. “There would have to be a substantial monetary penalty for putting carbon into the atmosphere, or the price of fossil fuels would have to go way up.”

The research was partially funded/supported by the National Science Foundation and by the US Department of Energy.

The new research was just published in the August 2 issue of the journal Science.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • lathebiosas

    I wonder if the mirrors could do double duty as photovoltaic solar cells. Generate solar power while heating the towers. It is reflect or absorb, not both?

    • Bob_Wallace

      It is reflect or absorb, not both.

      • lathebiosas


  • jimharvey

    Yeah the logistics may be a bit tough here. Where there is an abundance of sun there is usually a lack of water and vice-verse. But I hope this is economically feasible. It would be a great technological leap. I say; if you want to end oils and fuels come up with economically viable alternatives without expensive retail cost impact. Some only bad mouth what is currently economical, without solution. UC is coming up with solutions although relatively expensive.. They are to be commended for their efforts. Now put into practice what has been theoretically proven and do the appropriate economic evaluation, without bias. Impressive.

  • H2 rent seeking economics

    IMO hydrogen still has two major problems that oil has (but batteries don’t necessarily have):
    1. Oil corporations would still be using the public for rent seeking, so 100 of billions of our hard earnings would still be going to the very few who just happened to inherit the whole thing.
    The trickle up effect of money to Banking Corporations & to a lesser extent Oil Corporations is the major cause of our economic system which essentially means the public work for the financial benefit of Private banks who usu. create money when a loan is made. See . Hydrogen seems like it when be more rent seeking by the massively rich at our expense.

    2. Hydrogen would still probably come mainly from hydrocarbons and incur the constant cost of refueling.

    • Bob_Wallace

      At the minimum it would take legislation to force the H2 to come from renewable sources rather than natural gas. Set up a ‘NG H2’ pump next to a ‘renewable H2’ pump and few people would pay the extra cost for clean H2.

      Furthermore, in the US, our political climate has to change a lot before that sort of legislature could clear Congress.

  • titorite

    water to fuel cars are not unknown . The process is in many places. Many already understand how well two cylinders take browns gas… thats why motorcycles are leading the way in hydrogen conversions.

    The new era is upon us.

  • Howard99401 .

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    I believe your technology and our technology may be complements which have commercial potential. Can we chat at your convenience?

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  • beernotwar

    Just from a cost perspective I think battery storage will win out in the end. We already have a transmission system to charge batteries. Hydrogen would require an entirely new, potentially hazardous system to get the hydrogen to the end user. So in the end I suspect just generating electricity with those solar plants and sending it across the grid will be more efficient. Once battery technology improves, I doubt hydrogen will be competitive.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are inefficiencies all along the hydrogen pathway.

      Then, as you say, add in the cost of a new infrastructure to generate, transport and distribute the hydrogen. That cost must be reflected in the final fuel price.

      • beernotwar

        Holy cow that’s awesome! Thanks for posting.

        • mark mariner

          I am not sure how recent this chart is (which is very interesting btw) but fuels cells have achieved 65% efficiency.

          • Bob_Wallace

            It’s a bit dated. But EVs still maintain at least a 2x advantage. A move from 50% to 65% at the fuel cell level isn’t much of a move.

  • Martin Trevino

    You can use hydrogen-powered tankers to transport the hydrogen 🙂

    • jeffhre

      That is also true. Much like diesel powered tankers that are used to transport gasoline today. Well, except the gas molecules are not small enough to escape through solid steel tanks. And the gas is not compressed to 10,000 psi or shipped at -423 F.

  • JamesWimberley

    It’s a definite plus for this technology that it does not need innovation in the solar towers and heliostats. Solar furnaces have been reaching 3,500 deg C for decades, far higher than the temperatures cited. Current solar towers for CSP run far less hot, because for steam generation 500 – 1000 deg C is quite enough.
    Do Americans really still require Fahrenheit outside the home heating range?

  • Jim Nelson

    Already in the 18th century chemists were splitting water by passing steam through red-hot tubes of iron filings. No doubt this technique is more advanced and efficient, but the sources might have mentioned the earlier one. As for solar energy, fine, but how is this a chemical innovation — does use of a solar oven represent a radical innovation in breadmaking?

    As to the other comments — if the hydrogen (and oxygen) could be stored onsite as a chemical battery and the degeneration/regeneration cycle weren’t too thermodynamically lossy and the water could be effectively recovered in a closed cycle — might this system have potential for storing excess power without too much water consumption?

    • 4Aces

      The original article describes the chemical innovation (the hercynite redox material) that enables the efficient isothermal process. The combination of the novel redox material and the isothermal process are the innovations.

    • Ronald Brakels

      A much lower cost option would be to use thermal heat storage instead of hydrogen. Or ammonia could be made and used for fertilizer manufacture. But as the article says, the hydrogen produced is not currently competitive, so no one is likely to do that without additional incentive.

      • 4Aces

        Lower cost, but not very effective. Thermal Energy Storage round trip effciency is quite high, but you still need to covert heat into power, unless your end product is heat itself. So your suggestion isn’t comparable unless you include some additional conversion to power or fuel into the analysis. Are you planning on transporting heat or running a car off released heat?

        What makes this process less competitive is the extremely low price of natural gas… it is just too cheap and is hurting almost every alternative energy technology. PV isnt competitive either without extra incentives.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Jim was asking about onsite storage and use.

      • Rhs1

        This is what the Guza pyramid did. The Giza pyramid was a hydrogen gas generator. The creators of the pyramid use this to make ammonia used to fertilize the land and provide one of the most basic needs, food.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Don’t forget the hydrogen could also be used for long distance ballooning. Those pyramids didn’t end up in Central America by accident.

  • Steeple

    The last few miles and storage are the killer. You’re either looking at hydrogen delivery trucks or pipelines to local outlets that will require refrigerated storage. Good luck.

    • 4Aces

      Storing the hydrogen in ammonia borane would not require refrigeration. Also, using the H2 in a fuel cell and then transmitting the electricity to match grid demand would not require hydrogen transport.

  • Steeple

    That’s great. Now that you have Hydrogen produced in a desert somewhere, what are you going to do with it? Getting the fuel to where it is needed is half the battle. Sorry for being a downer, but that has always been Hydrogen’s Achilles Heel.

    • Marion Meads

      If we can build oil pipes from Canada to the Gulf Coast…. just saying…

    • 4Aces

      Use ammonia borane with a dehydrogenation catalyst, or generate it close to demand (Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, LA, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta… plenty of cities in the sun belt). Or, generate the H2, store it and generate power in a fuel cell during periods of higher power demand.

  • Holy grail indeed.

    • 4Aces

      It is possible, but not practical now. It is much closer to being practical as the hydrogen production process becomes more efficient. Knowing the details makes it much easier to understand how this could become a practical technology.

      • There are BIG problems with free hydrogen. It’s a volatile as gasses get. However, with hydride (which is illegal to purchase) hydrogen can be safely stored and used. Of course, it’s the cleanest burning fuel in the world and the basis of the physical universe but that’s another story.

        See what Bob Lazar (of area 51 fame or notoriety (take your pic) has done to power his Corvette. /watch?v=ag4iy6yg4R4

        There are answers. It’s just that TPTB and their owners have little to no imagination, not to mention being weak in the sciences.

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