Researchers create ‘transformational’ hydrogen chemical reactor

Researchers have created one of the first chemical reactors capable of producing pure hydrogen, in what has been called a ‘transformational’ step forward for the chemical industry.

The reactor, designed and led by Newcastle University and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), avoids mixing gases by transferring oxygen between them via an oxygen reservoir which stays close to equilibrium with the reactant streams.

The reactor’s ‘chemical memory’ enables it to produce hydrogen as a pure product stream, making hydrogen cheaper and less energy-intensive to obtain.

Professor Ian Metcalfe, lead author and professor of chemical engineering at Newcastle University, said: ‘Chemical changes are usually performed via mixed reactions whereby multiple reactants are mixed together and heated.

‘But this leads to losses, incomplete conversion of reactants and a final mixture of products that need to be separated.

‘With our Hydrogen Memory Reactor we can produce pure, separated products.  You could call it the perfect reactor.’

Photo credit: José Manuel Suárez (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hydrogen has become a key part of the global move towards renewable energy as a clean, abundant energy store which is easily obtained by splitting water molecules.

The researchers’ reactor uses water and carbon monoxide to generate hydrogen and carbon dioxide but separates the two products, unlike traditional reactors.

The reactor also prevents the carbon from being carried into the hydrogen produce stream as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, thereby avoiding contamination of the hydrogen.

This saves on the costly and energy-intensive process of obtaining the hydrogen by running it through another reactor.

The researchers have hailed the reactor as the first one which is close to being ‘thermodynamically reversible’, saying it could have implications for the whole chemical industry.

‘Whereas conventional hydrogen production requires two reactors and a separation, our reactor accomplishes all the steps in one unit,’ Professor Metcalfe added.

‘And while we demonstrate the concept with hydrogen, the memory reactor concept may also be applied to other processes.’

Hydrogen has been the subject of an increasing amount of academic research as academics hope to meet the demand for more renewable energy.

Last week, the British fuel cell company AFC Energy announced that it had succeeded in combining ammonia with alkaline fuel cells to produce hydrogen.

The company said that the breakthrough could make alkaline fuel cells a cheap alternative to diesel generators, a traditional and ‘dirty’ source of off-grid power.