Researchers at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology have developed an innovative, clean, inexpensive, and safe technology for producing hydrogen. The technology significantly improves the efficiency of hydrogen production, from ~75% using current methods to an unprecedented 98.7% energy efficiency. The researchers developed a unique process based on a cyclic process in which the chemical makeup of the anode (the electrode where the oxidation process takes place) changes intermittently.
In the first stage, the cathode (the electrode where the reduction takes place) produces hydrogen by reducing water molecules while the anode changes its chemical composition without producing oxygen. In the second stage, the cathode is passive while the anode produces oxygen by oxidizing water molecules. At the end of the second stage, the anode returns to its original state and the cycle begins again. This innovative process, called E-TAC water splitting (Electrochemical – Thermally-Activated Chemical water splitting), decouples the hydrogen and oxygen evolution reactions. Based on this technology, the researchers founded H2Pro, a startup company working on converting the technology to a commercial application.
The research was conducted by Professor Avner Rothschild of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor Gideon Grader of the Faculty of Chemical Engineering, together with Dr. Hen Dotan and Avigail Landman.
Enormous amounts of hydrogen are produced annually worldwide: ~65 million tons valued at ~130 billion dollars, with a total energy of ~ 9 exajoules (EJ), the equivalent of ~2,600 teraWatts per hour (TWh). These amounts are constantly increasing and are expected to triple over the next 20 years. Hydrogen consumption is expected to reach 14 exajoules by 2030 and 28 exajoules by 2040.
In the future, hydrogen is expected to serve several applications, some of which are in accelerated stages of development: hydrogen as fuel for fuel cell vehicles, fuel for storing energy from renewable energy sources for grid balancing and power-to-gas (P2G) applications, industrial and home heating, and more.
About 99% of the hydrogen produced today originates in fossil fuels, mainly by extraction from natural gas (SMR). Currently, the primary alternative for clean hydrogen production without CO2 emissions is water electrolysis. Clean hydrogen production entails a series of technological challenges. One of these is the significant loss of energy. Today the energetic efficiency of electrolysis processes is only 75%, and this means high electricity consumption. Another difficulty is related to the membrane that divides the electrolytic cell into two.
The E-TAC technology has several significant advantages over electrolysis:
1. Absolute chronological separation between hydrogen production and oxygen production, with the two processes occurring at different times. Consequently:
a. The membrane separating the anode from the cathode in the electrolytic cell is no longer necessary. This represents a substantial savings over electrolysis: the membrane is expensive, complicates the production process and requires high purity water and ongoing maintenance to prevent it from fouling.
b. It eliminates the risk of a volatile encounter between oxygen and hydrogen. Such an encounter is liable to occur in ordinary electrolysis if the membrane ruptures or its seal is broken.
c. Currently, the use of membranes limits the pressure in hydrogen production. The technology developed at the Technion renders the membrane unnecessary, thus facilitating hydrogen production under much higher pressure, thus eliminating some of the high costs of compressing the hydrogen later.
2. In the new process, oxygen is produced via a spontaneous chemical reaction between the charged anode and the water, without using an electrical current at that point. This reaction eliminates the need for electricity during oxygen production and increases energetic efficiency from 75% using customary methods to an unprecedented 98.7% efficiency.
3. The E-TAC technology is expected not only to lower operating costs but also equipment costs. H2Pro estimates that the cost of equipment to produce hydrogen using E-TAC will be about half the cost of equipment used in existing technologies.
Electrolysis was discovered more than 200 years ago and since then has undergone a cumulative series of individual improvements. Currently the Technion researchers are proposing a disruptive change in concept that they believe will lead to less expensive, clean and safe hydrogen production. They also believe the new process is likely to generate a revolution in hydrogen production based upon clean and renewable energy such as solar energy or wind power.
The developers of the technology joined together with the founders of the Viber company to establish H2Pro, a company working on commercializing this new technology. Located in the Caesarea Industrial Park, the company was given an exclusive license by the Technion to commercialize the product and to date has raised ~$5 million in a campaign led by Hyundai. H2Pro has more than 20 employees, most of them Technion graduates.
The research is supported by the Nancy and Stephen Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP), the Ed Satell gift for Nitrogen-Hydrogen Alternative Fuels (NHAF), the Adelis Foundation, the Ministry of Energy, and the European Commission (EU Horizon 2020 Framework Program).