Whatever Happened To The Plasmatron?

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No, it’s not a rejected prop from Galaxy Quest. A plasmatron is a device for reforming petroleum fuel into a hydrogen-rich gas. About ten years ago the plasmatron concept was all the rage, and researchers were busy trying to figure out how to engineer a compact plasmatron that could shoot hydrogen fuel into an internal combustion engine.

So, what happened?

hydrogen fuel via plasmatron
Image (cropped) by Jenny Downing via flickr.com, cc license.

The Promise Of The Plasmatron

Plasmatrons are electric-powered devices commonly used to provide hydrogen gas for the metallurgy field. They’re not all that big — they can be about the size of a car engine — but when you try to wedge that technology into a moving vehicle you’ve got two challenges: shrink it, and make it use a lot less electricity.

In the 1990’s, the Energy Department began funding plasmatron-induced hydrogen fuel production research for vehicles conducted by MIT, which focused on reducing emissions:

…the plasmatron is an onboard “oil reformer” that converts a variety of fuels into high-quality, hydrogen-rich gas. Adding a relatively modest amount of such gas to the gasoline powering a car or to a diesel vehicle’s exhaust is known to have benefits for cutting the emissions of pollutants.

By 2003, the research began yielding promising results for emissions reduction in diesel engines. The MIT team also found strong indications that the plasmatron reformer could significantly boost the efficiency of gasoline engines:

…They project that gasoline engine efficiency could be increased by up to 30 percent through improved performance allowed by the addition of hydrogen-rich gas.

What Now, Plasmatron?

If you’ve been following the battery EV versus hydrogen fuel cell EV issue, the sustainability platform for this whole plasmatron thing could look a little shaky, since the hydrogen is sourced from fossil fuels.

However, just as the fuel cell field is moving into sustainable hydrogen, in a report issued in 2006, the MIT team was already looking forward to the use of biofuel for onboard hydrogen fuel production.

Since then it’s been radio silence as far as fresh news from the Energy Department and MIT goes. If something new has crossed your radar, leave us a note in the comment thread.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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