Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are conducting extensive testing they hope will reveal a process that might reduce the amount of natural gas used and greenhouse gasses emitted by 20%. Chemical and mechanical engineering meet and marry in this endeavor, and sun is all that is required for the process.
The method to capture solar energy in chemical form uses the sun’s heat to crack open the molecules of natural gas and water to recombine them into something that burns more efficiently – pure hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This mixture, called synthesis gas, is a common building block in the chemical industry. Burning natural gas produces the energy required to make it.
A mirrored dish that looks like an upturned umbrella captures the sunlight. It then heats water and natural gas to 700 degrees Celsius. Then, a catalyst splits the molecules up and the atoms are reassembled.
Experts have not only improved the efficiency of the process, but they have also figured out a way to use a heat exchanger to extract heat before the synthesis gas is sent to a turbine for burning. That heat is added to the chemical reactor, further improving the efficiency of the solar side of the process.
$4.5 million in federal stimulus money financed the project, although experts note that since the project is still in development final costs have yet to be assessed. The project itself is still quite a way off from commercial viability.
Unlike other forms of solar energy, the hybrid solar/gas is intended to supply steady levels of electricity and experts believe it may be ideal in places like Japan, where natural gas prices are higher than average.