"Hydricity" Would Couple Solar Thermal and Hydrogen Power

Sun-to-electricity efficiency of the system could approach 35 percent

2 min read
"Hydricity" Would Couple Solar Thermal and Hydrogen Power
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Solar heat could help generate both electricity and hydrogen fuel at the same time in a system that scientists in Switzerland and the United States call "hydricity." Such a system could supply electricity round-the-clock with an overall efficiency better than many photovoltaic cells, researchers add.

There are two ways solar energy is used to generate electricity. Photovoltaic cells directly convert sunlight to electricity, while solar thermal power plants—also known as concentrating solar power systems—focus sunlight with mirrors, heating water and producing high-pressure steam that drives turbines.

Photovoltaic cells only absorb a portion of the solar spectrum, but they can generate electricity from both direct and diffuse sunlight. Solar thermal power plants can use more wavelengths of the solar spectrum, but they can only operate in direct sunlight, limiting them to sun-rich areas. Moreover, the highest conversion efficiencies reported yet for solar thermal power plants are significantly less than those for photovoltaic cells.

Scientists now suggest that coupling solar thermal power plants with hydrogen fuel production facilities could result in "hydricity" systems competitive with photovoltaic designs.

Today’s solar thermal power plants operate at temperatures of up to roughly 625 degrees C. However, the researchers noted that solar thermal power plants are more efficient at higher temperatures. What’s more, when they reach temperatures above 725 degrees C they can split water into it’s constituents, hydrogen and oxygen.

An integrated "hydricity" system would produce both steam for generating electricity and hydrogen for storing energy. And each makes the other more efficient. Set to produce hydrogen alone, its production efficiency approaches 50 percent, the researchers claim. This is because the high-pressure steam the system generates can easily be used to pressurize hydrogen. The substantial amount of power needed to compress hydrogen fuel for later transport and use is often neglected when it comes to calculating hydrogen production efficiency.

Furthermore, this new solar thermal energy design can generate electricity with standalone efficiencies approaching up to an unprecedented 46 percent, researchers say. This is because the high-temperature steam leaving high-pressure turbines can run a succession of lower-pressure turbines, helping make the most of the solar thermal energy the system collects.

Moreover, the hydrogen fuel the system generates can be burned to  generate electricity after nightfall, for round-the-clock power. The researchers say the efficiency of this hydrogen-to-electricity system could reach up to 70 percent, comparable to the highest reported hydrogen fuel cell efficiencies.

Altogether, the researchers say the sun-to-electricity efficiency of hydricity, averaged over a 24-hour cycle, might approach roughly 35 percent, nearly the efficiency attained using the best multijunction photovoltaic cells combined with batteries. In addition, they note that the hydrogen fuel the system produces could find use in transportation, chemical production, and other industries. Finally, unlike batteries, stored hydrogen neither discharges over time nor degrades with repeated use.

The scientists at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne in Switzerland detailed their findings online 14 December in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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