How to make pure hydrogen in a single chemical reactor – no separation needed!

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About 18 months ago in our paper “Overcoming chemical equilibrium limitations using a thermodynamically-reversible chemical reactor”, Nature Chemistry 11, 638–643 (2019),  we showed how using a non-stoichiometric oxygen carrier material it is possible to overcome the overall equilibrium limitations associated with a conventional reactor.   A high-resolution video explaining the principle of operation is here http://nuvision.ncl.ac.uk/Play/18143.  We used the reactor to produce pure hydrogen from the water-gas shift reaction.

Since publication we have had a lot of industrial interest in our work.  Unfortunately, however, due to non-disclosure agreements we cannot say very much about who is interested!

But the direction we would like to go is clear.  And that is really, once again, to concentrate on the water-gas shift reaction.  What we now want to do is take a syngas stream (carbon monoxide and water) and use this to produce pure hydrogen in a single reactor as before.  However, now we want to show that this works with about 2-3 orders of magnitude more oxygen carrier and at 10 bar pressure.  We want to build a demonstration unit over the next couple of years that could e.g. produce enough hydrogen to power a small fleet of vehicles (and we have a partner that has agreed to host such a unit).

To support this work (and skipping the industrial involvement) I have been lucky enough to be awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies, with 10-years of support to take the ideas behind our Nature Chemistry paper forward towards commercialisation.  The title of the chair is ‘Engineering chemical reactor technologies for a low-carbon energy future’ and it officially started on 1 March 2020.  This has been complemented by a European Research Council Proof-of-Concept grant which will start on 1 January 2021.  This will run for 18 months and will give us a quick start to our reactor and system scale up plans.

So recently the focus has been very much on trying to increase the size of the team working in this exciting area.  We have managed to recruit an additional post-doc, Leonidas Bekris and two PhD students, Alex Martinez and Matthew Guy.  They will work with existing team members Kelly Kousi, Wenting Hu, Dan Telford, Richard Court and myself.  And we are still looking for some more team members.

So it is an exciting time.  And if we can manage to produce pure hydrogen at demonstration scale in a single reactor we have plans, and we are developing the necessary insight, to be able to feed natural gas to the reactor directly thus having a single reactor capable of natural gas conversion to pure hydrogen with carbon dioxide capture.

Ian Metcalfe

Professor, Newcastle University

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