Clemson research could help turn hydrogen hype into 'hy'ways

February 17, 2005

Americans will have a hard time driving on the future's highways if they don't have fuel. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it's not readily available. Many researchers are working to develop fuel cells for the proposed alternative to petroleum-based fuels, but few are addressing the issue of where that hydrogen will come from.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Clemson University a three-year, $856,000 grant to develop more efficient methods for producing hydrogen.

"The irony is that today, most hydrogen is produced by consuming the very fossil fuels we're trying to replace," said principal investigator Mark Thies, professor of chemical engineering at Clemson. "But, we can also produce hydrogen by splitting water into its two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The trick is to find the most energy-efficient manner for carrying out that splitting process."

Thies explains that proposed "thermochemical processes" are much more efficient than the classic electrolysis method, which uses an electric current, for splitting water. The thermochemical processes require heat -- both solar and nuclear power have been proposed -- to operate and use complex chemical reactions to reduce the energy required to split the water.

These processes are still on the drawing board. Both high-powered experiments and high-powered computer calculations will be needed before hydrogen production can become a reality. Thies has assembled a diverse team of experimentalists, theoreticians and computer-aided design specialists to work on this challenging problem. The team includes Clemson professor David Bruce, John O'Connell of the University of Virginia, industrial consultant Paul Mathias of Cambridge, Mass., and Maximilian Gorensek of the Savannah River National Laboratory.

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