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Researchers in Belgium are preparing to market rooftop solar-activated panels that produce hydrogen gas instead of electricity.

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“Hydrogen House” Deploys Rooftop Solar Panels, But Don’t Call Them Solar Panels

Researchers in Belgium are preparing to market rooftop solar-activated panels that produce hydrogen gas instead of electricity.

The idea of a house that can produce its own hydrogen has been tossed around the Intertubes for a while now. It would be safe to assume that solar panels are involved somehow, but researchers in Belgium mapped out a different pathway. Their panels generate hydrogen gas instead of electricity.

It’s Called A Hydrogen Panel

CleanTechnica first spotted the hydrogen house concept back in 2008, when researchers in the UK launched a project aimed at deploying hydrogen fuel cells for home use.

Right around the same time Scientific American took note of New Jersey innovator Mike Strizki, who was already on to the next step. Strizki outfitted an existing home with ground mounted solar panels and an electrolysis system, which jolts hydrogen from plain tap water.  Strizki’s nonprofit organization, Hydrogen House, is an education center (hit them up for a tour some day).

In 2020, the California utility SoCal Gas upped the ante when it announced plans to demonstrate the hydrogen house concept on a factory-built 2,000 sq. ft. LEED platinum home equipped with solar panels, a battery, an electrolyzer for green H2, and a fuel cell.

The researchers in Belgium also developed a system that deploys solar energy, and their panels resemble solar panels, but they are different. The R&D began as a student project at Belgium’s historic KU Leuven university and is progressing under the umbrella of the Solhyd spinoff, spearheaded by professor Johan Martens of KU Leuven. He talked about the difference during an interview in 2019.

“A solar panel converts solar energy into electricity, while our panel converts moisture from the air into hydrogen gas,” Martens explained. “Sunlight is part of the picture, of course, and our panel does look like a solar panel, but we prefer to call it a hydrogen panel.”

How Does It Work?

Martens wasn’t giving away too much during the interview, as the team’s patent applications were still winding their way through the pipeline. However, it sure sounds like a photoelectrochemical reaction is in play. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Photoelectrochemical cells don’t produce electricity like photovoltaic cells. They act more like an artificial leaf, producing hydrogen through a direct chemical reaction in water, triggered by sunlight.

KU Leuven’s contribution to the field is an all-in-one approach that deploys water vapor from ambient air. That eliminates the need to engineer a water supply system, though Martens noted that still leaves plenty of room for other challenges.

“The temperatures on a solar panel can easily reach up to 50 or even 70 degrees Celsius, which doesn’t help when you’re working with water vapour,” he said. “Moreover, how do you create a system that works in the pouring rain and in situations where the humidity is very low? The biggest challenge, in other words, is the aspect of water management.”

The Sohlyd team does not expect their rooftop hydrogen panels to provide enough energy to power an entire house all year round, but in the 2019 interview, research co-leader Tom Bosserez stated that 20 panels could provide enough hydrogen to power a heat pump for a properly insulated house throughout a typical Belgian winter. He also noted that the addition of conventional solar panels and a thermal solar collector would enable a house to take care of its entire energy needs throughout the year.

Here Comes The Hydrogen House

The Solhyd project is zeroing in on the commercialization phase, and you can pick up a few more hints about the technology on the Solhyd website.

“The hydrogen panel is able to capture moisture from the air and use energy from the sun to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, by using innovative materials,” Solhyd explains. “The device only contains low cost, abundant materials and the use of precious metals is excluded.”

That thing about low cost, abundant materials suggests organic materials are in play. That may come as a surprise, but researchers have begun to pick apart the obstacles that have prevented the use of organic semiconductors in photoelectrochemical water-splitting. One example is a study published in the journal Nature last year. Apparently the Solhyd project has been working along a similar track.

As of this writing, the Solhyd team has only only built 10 prototype hydrogen panels, but they finally have enough financing at hand to make some big moves in short order. Last September Solhyd moved into new quarters near the city of Leuven. The initial plan is to manufacture “some dozens” of hydrogen panels for use in pilot-scale projects. The next step will ramp things up considerably.

“These facilities can accommodate the production of hundreds and even thousands of hydrogen panels. This was made possible through Flemish government funding, to support the development and installation of a pilot production line,” Solhyd notes.

And Now, The Agrivoltaic Angle

The Solhyd team is already looking ahead to other applications, and agrivoltaics made the short list.

CleanTechnica has spilled plenty of ink on the topic of agrivoltaics, in which crops are grown under and around solar panels that are raised a few feet higher off the the ground than a typical ground-mounted array. Initial efforts focused on grazing lands and pollinator habitats. More recently, researchers and farmers are demonstrating the technique on food crops and wine grapes.

Solyhyd points out that its hydrogen panels could be applied in the same way.

“One can use solar photovoltaics, but hydrogen panels are equally suited. Using just one percent of the Belgian agricultural land for agrivoltaics, would suffice to replace 9% of industrial gas use by green hydrogen,” they note.

The agivoltaic angle could help accelerate Solhyd into commercial production. Aside from energy applications, farmers could use hydrogen from the panels to produce their own green ammonia fertilizer.

The Solhyd team will be applying their panels to KU Leuven’s newly launched Transfarm sustainability project, which aims to rev up the emerging circular bioeconomy.

“The new research centre supports researchers in scaling up innovations in the bioeconomy and bioengineering from lab expertise to pilot scale in order to bring these new methods on the market and introduce them into society more quickly,” Transfarm explains.

Transfarm is the latest iteration of a 1920s-era agricultural research center. In its new form, the center sports 6000 square meters of solar panels, heat pumps, and emission controls for livestock, all with the aim of demonstrating fossil-free farming methods.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey (for now).

Find me on Mastodon at @Casey@mastodon.green (energy and clean tech) and @Casey@masthead.social (energy, clean tech and ESG).

Image: House with rooftop H2 panels courtesy of Solhyd.

 
 
 
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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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