Science 3 min read

New Alternative Hydrogen Engine Runs on Methane From Your Landfill

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Hydrogen-based fuels are in a good position to replace fossil fuels. The combustion of hydrogen generates water and nitrogen oxides yet no carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas associated with climate change. Researchers transformed a four-stroke engine into a modular reformer that produces hydrogen from methane and captures CO2.

The system could power fuel cells vehicles wherever there’s an available supply of natural gas. This includes your neighborhood’s local landfill.

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Scalable System for Methane Reforming

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a compact methane reforming reactor that simultaneously utilizes reaction and separation processes. Unlike other systems that focus only on either of the two processes, this reactor combines both processes (CO2 adsorption and selective H2 membrane permeation) to reduce the carbon footprint and the temperature required for the reaction.

An article on the study was published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

The CHAMP-SORB reactor (CO2/H2 Active Membrane Piston in combination with in situ CO2 absorption) operates at a four-stroke cycle:

1st Cycle: Methane, mixed with steam, is supplied through the valves in the cylinder as the piston descends. Once the piston reaches the bottom of the cylinder, the valve closes.

2nd Cycle: The piston rises, compressing the mixture, and the cylinder is heated to 400 degrees Celsius allowing for the catalytic reaction to occur: methane is reformed to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. As the hydrogen exits through a selective membrane, carbon dioxide is absorbed.

3rd Cycle: The piston lowers, reducing the pressure in the cylinder. Thus carbon dioxide is released from the sorbent material into the cylinder.

4th Cycle: The piston rises again to expel the carbon dioxide from the cylinder into the atmosphere, and begins a new cycle.

The CHAMP system could be scaled up to or down to fit the needs of an automotive refueling station, an individual vehicle or a residential fuel cell.

Hydrogen, the Green Fuel of the Future

Hydrogen has been used as fuel for more than a century, for lighting and heating purposes. Nowadays, liquid hydrogen propels space shuttles and rockets, and also used in the chemical industry. However, in transport and cars, there’s the major problem of storage, which compromises the autonomy of vehicles.

This simple and cost-effective technique opens the way to the long-sought solution of reforming petroleum or methanol inside the vehicle. With vehicles that produce and consume hydrogen themselves, we will solve the problem of storage and transport, save money that would have been invested in the construction of costly infrastructure, and, ultimately, we would curb human CO2 emissions.

On the other hand, methane is the primary component of biogas (generated from the fermentation of organic matter in nature, and a by-product in landfills), and a very potent greenhouse gas. Instead of releasing it into the environment, now it can be reformed as a fuel in scalable systems.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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