May 11, 2004
Improved Gasoline To Hydrogen Converter For Cars

One problem holding back the use of hydrogen to supply fuel to fuel cells in cars is that there is no good way to store hydrogen in cars and conversion to hydrogen distribution would be very expensive. Yet at the same time hydrogen can burn very efficiently. Looking to find a way around the limitations of hydrogen as a storage medium while still achieving some of the environmental and efficiency gains for hydrogen as a fuel to burn researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found a way to improve extraction of the hydrogen in gasoline into pure hydrogen.

RICHLAND, Wash. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a system to rapidly produce hydrogen from gasoline in your car. "This brings fuel cell-powered cars one step closer to the mass market," said Larry Pederson, project leader at PNNL. Researchers will present their developments at the American Institute for Chemical Engineers spring meeting in New Orleans, on April 27th, 2004.

Fuel cells use hydrogen to produce electricity which runs the vehicle. Fuel cell-powered vehicles get about twice the fuel efficiency of today's cars and significantly reduce emissions. But how do you "gas up" a hydrogen car? Instead of building a new infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations you can convert or reform gasoline onboard the vehicle. One approach uses steam reforming, in which hydrocarbon fuel reacts with steam at high temperatures over a catalyst. Hydrogen atoms are stripped from water and hydrocarbon molecules to produce hydrogen gas.

The problem has been that you have to wait about 15 minutes before you can drive. It has taken steam reformer prototypes that long to come up to temperature to begin producing hydrogen to power the vehicle. This delay is unacceptable to drivers.

However, PNNL has demonstrated a very compact steam reformer which can produce large amounts of hydrogen-rich gas from a liquid fuel in only 12 seconds. "This kind of fast start was thought to be impossible until just a couple of years ago," said Pederson.

The Department of Energy recognized that a fast start was vital to the viability of onboard fuel processing and established an ultimate goal of 30 seconds for cold start time with an intermediate target of 60 seconds by 2004. The steam reformer is the highest temperature component within the fuel processor and represents the biggest hurdle to achieving rapid startup. "Hence, the PNNL achievement of a 12 second steam reformer startup is a big step towards a complete fuel processor which can start up in 30 seconds," said Greg Whyatt, the project's lead engineer.

PNNL engineers called upon their expertise in microtechnology to develop the reforming reactor. Microchannels, narrower than a paper clip, provide high rates of heat and mass transport within the reactor. This allows significantly faster reactions and dramatically reduces the size of the reactor. A complete microchannel fuel processor for a 50 kilowatt fuel cell is expected to be less than one cubic foot. At this size, the system will readily fit into an automobile.

"The key feature of the new design is that the reforming reactor and water vaporizer are configured as thin panels with the hot gases flowing through the large surface area of the panel," said Whyatt. This allows high gas flows to be provided with an inexpensive, low-power fan while still providing efficient heat transfer to rapidly heat the steam reformer.

"In addition, the panel configuration allows higher combustion temperatures and flows without risking damage to the metal structure while a low pressure drop reduces the electrical power consumed by the fan during startup and steady operation" said Whyatt.

PNNL researchers are now working to reduce the fuel consumption and air flow required during startup. In addition, integration with other components is needed to demonstrate a complete fuel processor system that can achieve startup in less than 30 seconds. However, PNNL's fuel reformer technology appears to have overcome a major stumbling block for onboard reformation: the need for speed.

Converting the hydrocarbons in the gasoline to hydrogen would allow both a less polluting burn and a more efficient burn.

In my view too many future energy scenarios neglect the advantages and future potentials from the continued use of liquid chemical fuels. We do not have batteries or methods of storing hydrogen that compare to the density and ease of use of liquid hydrocarbons. Even if global warming is a serious problem that must be dealt with that is not necessarily a reason to abandon liquid hydrocarbons. Better catalysts for doing artificial photosynthesis (which would parenthetically create an artificial carbon cycle that would stop the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) to produce liquid hydrocarbons combined with more efficient ways of burning liquid hydrocarbon fuels may some day become a cost competitive set of technologies for gradually reducing and eventually eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels. The burning of liquid hydrocarbons using emerging technologies such as hydrogen reformers promise to increase fuel efficiency while simultaneously reducing emissions. This increased efficiency will be gained regardless of whether the liquid fuel source is from fossil fuel hydrocarbons or from synthetic liquid hydrocarbons produced by either solar energy or using energy generated by nuclear plants.

Combine the conversion of gasoline to hydrogen in the car with continuing advances in hybrid car technologies and use of liquid fuels may well continue to have a bright future. Proposals for a massive and incredibly expensive conversion to a pure hydrogen energy economy ought to be compared to the possibilities for continued development of a much higher tech and environmentally cleaner liquid hydrocarbon future.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 May 11 02:07 PM  Energy Tech


Comments
Ken Hirsch said at May 11, 2004 9:26 PM:

What happens to the carbon in the hyrdrocarbon fuel?

Randall Parker said at May 11, 2004 9:41 PM:

Ken, If you are talking about the carbon in the hydrocarbons fed into a hydrogen converter for all the reformer designs I've seen described that say so they say it is released as carbon dioxide. My guess is that this is the case for all of them but I'm not absolutely certain.

Keep in mind that with artificial photosynthesis systems we'd have a closed loop on the carbon where emissions and removal would be done in equal amounts.

Jet said at May 24, 2004 9:02 PM:

Please visit www.thermaldepolymerization.org

This technology allows for closed cycle as well as conversion of any organic waste into liquid fuels

TDP is not in my opinion yet prooven economically but there is one full scale plant running and several planned.

The sun light hitting the earth provides over 5000 times the power used by humans. Biomass could probably supply something like 10 to 20x energy now used by humans without messing the planet up. Energy farms along with required water supplies would provide recreation for humans and habitat for other species.

The lack of realistic energy source is what keeps 5/6 of human race in poverty. Come up with a workable energy plan and you will see world poverty magically disappear.

Apparently TDP will strip excess carbon from the cycle and deliver it as carbon powder. TDP can be applied to Coal for example and produce liquid fuels + carbon powder.

I think using liquid fuels for transport and some sort of reactor to strip hydrogen is far better than trying to store pure hydrogen. I suspect a reactor could either produce powdered carbon or "burn it"

------------

There is also Hydrates - suppose to be a fossil fuel resource twice as large as all other fossil fuels including coal.
http://marine.usgs.gov/fact-sheets/gas-hydrates/title.html
Don't worry there is no way our advanced technological civilization will run out of energy or ruin the environment. The trend for all commodities is toward zero price - energy included. That is what drives our living standard up.

I read somewhere people didn't get out of the stone age because they ran out of stones - same applies to fossil fuels

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Kunchako Chako said at August 4, 2005 4:24 PM:

I think your views on this topic are outrageous and the death of everyone wouldn't worry me at all. As a physics teacher, in Benalla, australia, i feel that all cars should run on lead based fuels, so the pollution in this fine nation can continue and so i can get to school quicker and more efficently, for me. That is all, isn't it?

vejux said at February 12, 2006 11:15 PM:

If they don't know or don't talk about batteries, it doesn't mean they don't exist. EV is the way!

suzanna said at September 3, 2006 7:33 PM:

What happens to hydrocarbon in the car?

SANKARA RAJA KUMAR.V said at February 8, 2007 3:46 AM:

Sir,
I am doing my Bachelors' in Mechanical Engineering. I want to present a paper related to "convertion of coal into Liquid Fuels". Hence, I need some innovative ideas to strenous my worthy doing. Kindly, give me, enough ideas to try my level best.

yours truely
Sankara Raja Kumar.V

Edwin Marshall said at July 4, 2008 1:01 PM:

Great, were we can buy few for my cars?

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