Team at university in Doha pioneers using solar power to make hydrogen fuel from natural gas.
Qatar laboratory discovers potential cheap clean energy
DOHA // Finding a way to produce hydrogen cheaply without emitting carbon dioxide has long been one of the holy grails of energy science. Seeing great commercial potential, research outfits from the United States, Germany, France, Switzerland and Israel have invested countless hours and millions of dollars in hopes of discovering a clean and sustainable energy solution. "You can think of it like the Olympic Games," Nesrin Ozalp, an engineering professor at Texas A&M University-Qatar (Tamuq), said in a recent interview. "Whoever breaks the barrier first, they're going to be honoured." Prof Ozalp and her team at Tamuq's Sustainable Energy Research Lab may have done just that, detailing in the leading industry journal a process that uses concentrated solar power to crack natural gas and produce hydrogen and carbon black, a solid used in rubber, inks and other products. Their findings earned an environmental award and additional funding, and may have significantly advanced the cause of one of the world's great energy hopes. Hydrogen has long been touted as one of the cleaner, safer forms of fuel and electricity. But it is not an energy source, like oil or coal, but an energy carrier, like electricity. As such, it must be extracted. For decades, nearly all of the world's hydrogen has been produced via steam reforming of natural gas, which results in nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as hydrogen. Most of this production is done by oil companies, which use the hydrogen to refine their oil into gasoline. "It emits a lot of CO2, which is bad for the environment and a big headache for these companies because they have to pay extra in taxes and storage expenses," said Prof Ozalp. To make hydrogen viable as a source of fuel and electricity - and spark the much-heralded hydrogen economy - the production process had to be more economically and environmentally sustainable. A few years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a method that includes a solar energy reformer. This process, which is to be used in Masdar City's hydrogen plant, currently under construction, also involves water, and thus emits some carbon dioxide. Researchers in Switzerland and Israel, meanwhile, used concentrated solar power to devise an emission-free method. But problems remained. During the procedure, tiny carbon particles were clinging to the walls and windows of the reactor. They clogged the drain and often led to explosions. The researchers also faced a conundrum that has frustrated man since the days of the sun dial: weather. A solar reactor requires a certain amount of sunlight to maintain its target of 1500°C; cloudy and rainy days mean a drop in reactor temperature. Part of the Swiss team that had been working on the solar reactor, Prof Ozalp came to Qatar in 2007 with solutions in mind. After building a team, she added to the reactor an aero-shield that sweeps the walls clean of carbon particles and creates a vortex to keep the particles moving. To address changing weather, she developed a camera-like aperture on the solar reactor that adapts to the amount of sunlight, much like a pupil in the human eye. At the same time, the reactor reduces its volume accordingly to help keep the temperature constant. Calling her creation the "aero-shielded smart solar cyclone reactor", Prof Ozalp published her model in the March issue of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. In April, the team won the "Excellence in Environmental Technology" honour at the Offshore Arabia 2010 Environmental Awards. "We had a big celebration," said Prof Ozalp. "Just a few weeks ago we celebrated again." In late June her team received a US$2.2 million (Dh8m) grant from the Qatar National Research Fund to continue its work. With Prof Ozalp's method, hydrogen producers need not worry about storing or burying their carbon dioxide, but rather to whom they will sell their carbon black. The world market for the commodity is expected to reach about $15 billion and 11.6m metric tons by 2013, according to a study by Freedonia, a market research group. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute estimates that Prof Ozalp's process may mean double the revenue of traditional hydrogen production. The institute has signed an agreement with the Qatar Science and Technology Park to develop the technology. One observer wonders whether the world is ready for it. "Natural gas is less carbon intensive a fuel than coal and is convenient and fairly clean to use," said Elisabeth Drake, an engineer at MIT's Lab for Energy and the Environment. In April, however, Cornell scientist Robert Howarth released a report estimating that natural gas may be more environmentally damaging than oil, and nearly as bad as coal. "Hydrogen is a more challenging fuel because of its low mass and volumetric density," added Ms Drake. "Most experts seem to think that the technological problems of hydrogen transmission and storage will take two to five decades to solve." Some might argue that we do not have that long. Prof Ozalp's process has only been tested in computer simulations, but her team is building a reactor that should be ready for testing this fall. She estimates a hydrogen plant will be using her reactor within three years, the likeliest candidates being countries with sizeable natural gas reservoirs and abundant sunshine. "Everybody talks about global warming," said Prof Ozalp, "but this is a solution, not just talk." firstname.lastname@example.org