New research at the Savannah River National Laboratory could help make our state the ‘Detroit of hydrogen.’ - Todd Wright, SNRL

We can put science to work for our energy needs
New research at the Savannah River National Laboratory could help make our state the "Detroit of hydrogen."

Original at the Greenville News

To many, "science" is a subject from school -- an opportunity to build a homemade telescope or observe how magnets make a needle spin. Science is not limited to school, however (even though it can be lots of fun), and it's not just an intellectual exercise.

Science is a dynamic force that can be applied to create answers to many of the issues facing South Carolina and the nation, issues like ensuring a clean, reliable energy supply for the future. It can also be a vibrant economic force, helping the region to achieve the vision of becoming the nation's hub for hydrogen vehicles. It can help us become, in fact, the "Detroit of hydrogen."

Every day, the researchers at the Savannah River National Laboratory put science to work to address topics of crucial importance to the region and the nation. For over 50 years, SRNL has been serving our nation by developing technology solutions for national and homeland security, environmental protection and remediation, and -- in recent years -- energy.

As the applied research and development laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site, SRNL developed and continues to enhance the technologies that make it possible for SRS to maintain the nation's supply of tritium, a hydrogen isotope that is a vital component of our modern nuclear defense. Today the laboratory, operated by Washington Group International subsidiary Westinghouse Savannah River Co., is putting that tritium expertise to work in valuable new ways.

SRNL's research and development is proving relevant and useful as the nation looks to hydrogen as a future energy source. In order to meet the president's goals for making hydrogen-fueled cars practical for the American consumer, the nation must solve some critical technological challenges. Leading that list is: How do we safely, efficiently and conveniently store hydrogen on board a car?

SRNL's decades of work in hydrogen storage for defense purposes has given us a running start on suitable ways to store hydrogen for a vehicle. We know that storing hydrogen in a solid-state material is safe; it's also more compact and more convenient than storage as a liquid or gas. In a solid state, you can store larger quantities of hydrogen in a smaller space, without the need for high pressure.

In the past, we have led the development of a very successful solid-state storage method: metal hydride technology, which uses metal granules that absorb hydrogen like a sponge and release it at a certain temperature. This technology has helped reduce the size and cost, and enhanced the safety of the Savannah River Site's defense-related hydrogen work, but it was developed for stationary uses -- not automobiles, where weight is an important factor.

Storage using hydrides is heavy, so now we're working to develop lighter-weight solid-state storage methods. We're exploring lighter-weight hydride materials, in cooperation with the Toyota Technical Center USA (Toyota Motor Co.'s technical center in the United States). We're also studying the use of microscopic structures called carbon nanotubes, in a research project funded by DOE, and we're studying the use of minute glass beads called microspheres, in a project that combines our hydrogen expertise with glass technology, another strong area of SRNL research.

Another leading technological challenge that must be solved is: How do we produce enough hydrogen to meet the demand? Hydrogen is plentiful across our planet, but it is bound in water or other compounds. Breaking apart those compounds to release the hydrogen requires energy, so the quest is to find the cleanest, most energy-efficient method possible to do this.

SRNL researchers have been studying both the technical and the economic aspects of using the heat from an advanced nuclear reactor or a solar furnace to "crack" water into hydrogen and oxygen. It's clean, it requires no imported fuels, and it has the potential to provide large quantities of hydrogen. We recently completed a demonstration that indicated that a new type of electrolyzer, when used with our proposed process for nuclear production of hydrogen, would be 30 to 50 percent more efficient than traditional methods of electrolysis for generating hydrogen.

But the Savannah River National Laboratory is not alone in this pursuit. South Carolina is home to research universities with very strong areas of scientific and technological expertise related to hydrogen as a fuel for the future. The University of South Carolina's fuel cell work is widely known, and it is actively involved in hydrogen production and storage research. South Carolina State University in Orangeburg conducts research in fuel cell technology and transportation-related issues, and is prepared to lead as a center to test and validate emerging hydrogen-related technologies. Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR) will support advanced automotive design and the development of strong, light-weight materials for enhanced transportation applications for conventional vehicles, as well as hydrogen-powered vehicles, and will serve as an "integrator" to pull all the components together for automotive needs.

This work is attracting interest and, more importantly, investment. Commercial entities, the Department of Energy and other government agencies, are participating in or sponsoring many SRNL and university projects. They are starting to view South Carolina as the place for advancing hydrogen. Aiken County is building a new state-of-the-art Center for Hydrogen Research adjacent to SRNL, where SRNL's researchers will perform hydrogen research alongside the center's other tenants, and eventually will include universities and commercial companies engaged in hydrogen research at this facility.

SRNL and the universities are working together, with the continuing support of Sen. Lindsey Graham and Reps. Bob Inglis, James Clyburn and Gresham Barrett, to put science to work for a hydrogen-fueled economy. Hydrogen-powered cars will not be available at your local dealership next year, but we firmly believe that they are coming. In the meantime, scientific partnerships across the state will enable South Carolina to take its earned position as the nation's leader in hydrogen technology.

More details
Dr. G. Todd Wright is laboratory director at the Savannah River National Laboratory, a position he has held since 2003. He brings to the position more than 25 years of leadership experience in industrial and nuclear research and development. For more information, go to www.srs. gov.

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