methane and steam meet to begin the reforming process.
Modine Manufacturing Co. and ChevronTexaco Technology Ventures have presented a paper at the National Hydrogen Association conference in Washington, D.C., on a new reactor that uses steam to extract hydrogen from natural gas.
Modine, a firm in Racine, Wisconsin, that develops thermal managment technology, worked with the ChevronTexaco Co. subsidiary on a steam methane reforming reactor, which the companies say is an efficient way of producing hydrogen for mass distribution to energy stations.
Fuel cells that combine oxygen and hydrogen or hydrogen-rich fuels to create an electric current can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines. Major vehicle manufacturers plan to develop cars with that use hydrogen fuels within the next decade.
Before the owners of fuel-cell-run cars can benefit from this energy, they must first have the fuel. And it’s not like fossil fuels, which, while of limited quantity, are already present in the Earth.
“You cannot dig a hole and get hydrogen,” said Phillip Myers, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of mechanical engineering.
Hydrogen is already used commercially, and it is broadly extracted in large production plants that supply it to a number of industries. Shipping hydrogen is an expensive and somewhat dangerous process.
“Hydrogen presents problems from a trucking perspective,” said Mark Baffa, the director of Modine’s Fuel Cell Products Group. “Basically, you have two options. [The first is], you have to deliver it in gaseous form, which needs to be compressed, put in a truck, and shipped to get it from point A to point B. Because it’s so light, you’re mostly hauling around a truck. It’s hard to get a lot of hydrogen in by weight.”
“The other option is to liquefy it,” he said. “In order to keep it at almost absolute zero [temperature] in order to keep it a liquid, you expend a lot of energy.”
In addition, because hydrogen is highly flammable, even a tiny leak in a truck’s shipment could lead to combustion — another reason to extract hydrogen at the site where it is needed rather than transporting it at all.
The partnership between Modine and ChevronTexaco began as both companies saw the need for hydrogen extraction technology to do just that. While many other companies developing hydrogen-based automobile engines have created models in which the hydrogen is shipped to fueling stations from processing plants, the Modine-ChevronTexaco model focuses on creating hydrogen at the stations.
Modine has drawn on its partner’s knowledge about the steam methane reforming reactor and hydrogen extraction processes to build a device that combines Modine’s thermal management technology with the catalysts needed to produce hydrogen using natural gas.
“It’s been driven by us with the science that supports it coming from our partners. The mechanical device is all Modine,” Baffa said. “They engaged us in this activity to try to condense that petrochemical hydrogen plant into a practical hydrogen appliance.”
“Where heat is generated, we’ve created a system that uses that heat where it’s needed,” he added. “It’s a system that’s in balance, and, in a sense, self-regulating.”
On Tuesday Modine sent the reactor for testing in Houston, Texas. It will stay there for several months and, if all goes well, the companies will develop more units. Baffa said they hope to do that by the end of next year.
In addition to the steam methane reforming reactor, ChevronTexaco has installed a hydrogen fueling station in Chino, California, for demonstration. Once both of these have been tested, Modine and ChevronTexaco will view the results and either change their hydrogen extracting technologies to be more efficient, or will begin to extend the technology further.
Though neither company knows exactly how quickly the fuel cell technology will develop, both have rough estimates. Baffa, who hopes that the momentum of fuel cell development will continue to build, projected that the commercialization of fuel-cell technology in vehicles to begin in 2008.
“No one knows how the hydrogen economy will unfold over the next few decades,” said Jennifer Silva, business communications manager for ChevronTexaco Technology Ventures. “However, we believe the hydrogen infrastructure will develop in stages, starting with localized hydrogen production using reformers supplied by natural gas and/or liquid fuel. In the future advances in technology may allow hydrogen to be generated economically from renewable sources, such as solar or wind power.”
Silva said they would like to do a field trial of the technology in a fueling station by the second quarter of 2006.
Proponents of the technology are hopeful that hydrogen extraction will continue to become more and more efficient, eventually becoming reliant on renewable resources such as solar power.
“Most of the energy in a hydrocarbon fuel [such as oil or petroleum] comes from the combustion, but the combustion process yields a lot of nasty things that nobody likes. People all over the world have spent a lot of time finding out ways to try to clean that up,” Baffa said. “When we use just the hydrogen by stripping it off of whatever it’s attached to, you can provide clean, pure energy that’s environmentally sound.”