Hydrogen Station No Pipe Dream at Lamar University

The fuel cell and hydrogen initiative takes advantage of Lamar's location in the nation's largest hydrogen economy - 45 percent of the nation's hydrogen is produced in the region.

Published: 07-Jan-2007

Alternative fuels in gasoline alley? Say hello to hydrogen.

Lamar University researchers are looking for a hydrogen fill-up on their way to leadership in the future hydrogen economy.  

“It’s a long-term play,” said Jack Hopper, dean of Lamar University’s College of Engineering, of the initiative to form the Texas Hydrogen Energy Consortium.

The future will likely mean tapping energy from a variety of sources —renewable energy and hydrogen among them.

It’s a natural for Lamar’s researchers to hope to “become a highly visible player in the world of energy science,” said Craig Andrews, director of research at Lamar for Radiance Technologies. 

Lamar University has partnered with Radiance Technologies, a systems engineering and technology development company based in Alabama, to develop fuel-cell power for military applications.

Lamar University is a stone’s throw from the site of the 1901 Spindletop discovery that ushered in the petroleum era.  Lamar’s engineering college has a strong base in the many disciplines essential to energy systems research.

Lamar and Radiance Technologies believe establishing a hydrogen refueling station in Southeast Texas is a logical step because one of the nation’s two extensive hydrogen pipelines crosses Southeast Texas as it runs between Baton Rouge and Corpus Christi. 

The fuel cell and hydrogen initiative takes advantage of Lamar’s location in the nation’s largest hydrogen economy – 45 percent of the nation’s hydrogen is produced in the region.  Lamar’s neighbor ExxonMobil produces thousands of cubic feet of hydrogen daily. 

“That pipeline right over the tracks (from Lamar University) is one of the things that makes this area unique,” Andrews said. 

Lamar researchers would use the station to fuel vehicles to test emerging technologies. University vehicles used every day for maintenance and transportation might be candidates for hydrogen power.

Lamar’s new fuel cell laboratory in the Lucas Engineering Building uses hydrogen piped from high-pressure steel cylinders for several fuel-cell research programs.  Delivery of hydrogen directly from the pipeline would cut costs substantially, Andrews said.

Adding a vehicle fueling station would take the research beyond the test bench and into the working world, Andrews said.  This would give the opportunity to collect real-world data on the performance of fuel cells and other emerging technologies. 

If you don’t think hydrogen may be in your future, consider that Honda’s first purpose-built fuel cell car is available for lease in California.  The Honda FCX , which went on display last November, gets about 270 miles to a tank of hydrogen and emits only water vapor. 

Still, the hydrogen economy is a long way off, Hopper said. “For a lot of reasons, hydrogen will not be the fuel of choice for most people for a long time to come,” said Hopper, who is also Associate Provost for Research and Sponsored Programs Administration at Lamar. “Even so, there are niche applications it can fill now and there is a lot of work yet to be done in developing the science to prepare for the future.”

The research is a part of Lamar’s Fuel Cell and Energy Systems Center plans for research initiatives to harness renewable energies to create hydrogen — biomass, ethanol, solar, wind and geothermal energy – as well as research on improvements in the conversion of hydrogen into clean, practical energy through fuel cells and internal combustion.  Between harvesting hydrogen and harnessing its potential energy are a host of challenges in transportation and materials handling.

Hydrogen can be used in internal combustion engines or turned into electricity through fuel cells which then power electric motors.  A primary benefit of using pure hydrogen as a power source is that it uses oxygen from the air to produce water vapor as exhaust.

Yet for all its potential, hydrogen doesn’t yet pass the practicality test.  “Hydrogen is an excellent fuel except for the fact that is has such terribly poor energy density,” Andrews said.

By weight, hydrogen contains 3.4 times more energy than gasoline.  That sounds good, until you account for its being 2,700 less energy dense than gasoline.  Whereas the technologically simple gas tank in a family sedan might take it 500 miles, hauling an equivalent load of hydrogen energy would require a colossal sized tank. To provide similar energy-yields to gasoline, hydrogen must be compressed to very high pressure, requiring tanks made of high-tech carbon fiber composites and specialized refueling stations.

If hydrogen is compressed to around 10,000 pounds per square inch, it still takes up about three times the space as gasoline with the same energy, but it is enough to make a car travel 200 miles. “By pressurizing it I’ve put even more energy into the equation, but that is energy I don’t get back,” Andrews said.

One challenge is to build a tank that can safely contain such tremendous pressure.  Make the tank of steel and end up with a vessel weighing more than the vehicle that would carry it. Lightweight, but incredibly strong composites such as carbon fiber are one technology being developed to address the challenge.

Another option is to refrigerate hydrogen to its liquid state –an extreme minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. And, while in a liquid state, the flammable hydrogen is continually evaporating.  The hydrogen evaporates so quickly, in fact, that in about 20 days a tank will be empty.  And, even in its liquid state, a tank of hydrogen would need to be four times larger to equal the energy in a tank of gasoline.

From an energy-in, energy-out standpoint alone, hydrogen doesn’t make sense on a large scale – it’s difficult to transport, takes energy to pressurize and/or chill, requires larger, expensive tanks to contain, and gives less energy back than low-tech gasoline, Andrews said. 

A third option for storing hydrogen that is being explored is by using chemical compounds  to create a stable compound containing the hydrogen.  A chemical reaction is employed to release the hydrogen, which is collected and used by a fuel cell.            Research continues on finding the best methods of harvesting, storing, transporting and employing the energy of hydrogen. 

While the technical challenges are tremendous, hydrogen holds promise as one of many energy sources for America’s future.  Renewable energy — wind, solar, biofuels and hydrogen — will become increasingly attractive slices of the energy pie in the decades ahead as fossil fuels become harder to find and extract.

Still, hydrogen is a bottom-line game.  The cost to produce, transport, store and deliver is what will drive the acceptance of what today seem exotic solutions to America’s thirst for energy.

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