Washington State University researchers are part of a team receiving $2.2 million to develop an efficient and inexpensive hydrogen liquefaction system that could pave the way for mainstream availability of hydrogen fuels and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
The U.S. Department of Energy grant is led by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the nation’s top hydrogen testing lab. WSU researchers are also collaborating with Praxair, a leading provider of liquid hydrogen.
WSU holds a patent on a vortex tube model that could potentially efficiently liquefy hydrogen. The vortex tube, a mechanical device that separates a compressed gas into hot and cold streams, was designed in the 1930s and is inexpensive and easy to make, but the WSU team was the first to connect it to hydrogen liquefaction.
WSU’s vortex tube channels very hot and cold air to liquefy hydrogen at extremely cold temperatures of 20 degrees Kelvin, or -423.67 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Hydrogen is very difficult to liquefy,” said Jacob Leachman, assistant professor in WSU’s Voiland College School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “But the benefits are huge.”
WSU researchers will redesign their vortex tube model to enhance the cold stream and will examine possible refrigerants for their system, including neon, helium and hydrogen. They will also design a larger system, which could be scaled up for real-world use.
NREL will build a working prototype of WSU’s vortex tube and contribute time on a supercomputer for modeling. The NREL researchers will also perform an economic study to find potential sites for hydrogen liquefaction stations.
Leachman hopes this project will increase the availability of hydrogen as a fuel and promote hydrogen power across the country.
“There are systems that can convert wind energy to hydrogen, but it’s still difficult to increase the hydrogen density for transport and storage,” he said. “This technology will help us do that cheaply.”
The liquefaction technology could also allow hydrogen generated from agriculture waste in wheat production to be inexpensively gathered and stored, he said.