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Hydrogen Production

Thermodynamically-reversible reactor capable of producing Hydrogen

A ground-breaking chemical reactor – using a disruptive technology that’s capable of creating pure hydrogen in a more efficient and cost-effective way – could bring significant benefits to industry.

The first thermodynamically reversible chemical reactor, which is the product of research led by Newcastle University, could also help bring hydrogen a step closer to being a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Professor Ian Metcalfe, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering, says the reactor has prompted particular interest from companies operating in the oil, gas and chemical sectors. “At this stage we are talking to potential industrial partners that could bring their expertise and facilities on board to further develop the technology and to commercialise it,” he explains.

Reducing production costs

The reasons for this interest include the new reactor’s potential to cut the cost of making hydrogen on a large scale. Traditionally, early stages in production result in hydrogen that is mixed with other gases. Subsequent steps to separate these gases are extremely energy-intensive, requiring significant capital investment in plant that has a large footprint.

However, the reactor being developed by Newcastle University – in collaboration with the universities of Durham and Edinburgh and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France – will complete all the steps in hydrogen production in just one compact unit.

Ian says: “The new reactor eliminates energy-intensive gas separation, which will reduce capital costs significantly just because the size of the unit will be smaller. Operating costs will be lower too because the whole process is more efficient.”

Novel approach

The research team has been able to remove the gas separation step by taking a novel approach to hydrogen production. Ian says: “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.”

To overcome these problems, the new reactor instead relies on the use of an unmixed reaction process. This is achieved by passing a gas stream of carbon monoxide (CO) over a bed of oxygen exchange material, which creates pure carbon dioxide (CO2). Then, the gas stream is switched to pass steam (H2O) over the bed in the opposite direction, producing pure hydrogen.

This works so well because of the special qualities of the oxygen exchange material, which acts as the catalyst. Ian says: “Other types of catalyst become saturated with the gases you’re passing over them, limiting the conversion. We’re using a special class of material, known as a non-stoichiometric oxide, which doesn’t get saturated so there’s no limit to the conversion potential.”

He has great hopes for the reactor: “It’s certainly scalable in either direction – up to large-scale industrial production or down for domestic use in an urban environment to something like the size of an electricity substation.

The research team’s work, which was funded by the European Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, could also aid attempts to move away from fossil fuels to greener sources of power, such as hydrogen.

Prof Ian Metcalfe introduces the Memory Reactor

Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technology

In October 2019 it was announced that Prof Ian Metcalfe had been selected to hold a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technology. 

The Royal Academy of Engineering states: "Professor Metcalfe will develop new chemical reactor technologies to help achieve the energy conversions needed to support a low-carbon energy future including, but not limited to, low-carbon hydrogen production. Reaction engineering lies at the heart of such chemical conversions.  Professor Metcalfe plans to exploit recent innovations in the cyclic operation (or chemical looping) of chemical reactors to deliver transformational chemical processes for the energy sector."

Read more: Global Visionaries awarded £22 million in Academy funding to advance emerging technologies.