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Hydrogen’s Promise

Turning trash into clean energy

Part three of a three-part Ignition Award series

Living the good life in America has its costs: every day each of us hogs energy — almost 40 kilowatts per person — and creates heaps of waste — nearly five pounds. Now, a team of Boston University engineers is taking on both sides of this environmentally unfriendly coin by developing a technology that essentially converts trash into electricity.

Their idea: use the latent energy in hydrocarbon waste — everything from sawdust to paper to plastics — to split steam into oxygen and hydrogen and use the hydrogen to generate electricity in fuel cells that emit no greenhouse gases.  

“The advantage of our process is that it utilizes waste that would otherwise be thrown into landfills,” says Srikanth Gopalan, a College of Engineering assistant professor of manufacturing engineering, who is working with team leader Uday Pal, an ENG professor of manufacturing engineering. Another advantage would be to lower the cost of obtaining pure hydrogen.

Fuel cell energy may be green, but it isn’t cheap — about $4,500 per kilowatt, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. By contrast, a natural gas turbine can crank out a kilowatt for less than $400. A significant part of a fuel cell’s cost is the expense of pure hydrogen, now created largely using high-temperature steam to extract hydrogen from methane or propane, leaving behind carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The research has earned Pal and Gopalan an Ignition Award from BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD). Four times a year, with the help of a committee of senior venture capitalists from the Boston area, OTD selects Ignition Award winners from applications submitted by BU professors or students whose research is ready to take the leap from the research laboratory to commercial development. The work of the ENG professors was one of three projects awarded a total of $100,000 at the end of last summer. Another round of Ignition winners will be announced this month, and the next application deadline is April 1

“We believe these technologies have the potential to provide important benefits to society by translating into commercially available technologies, products, or treatments,” says Stanford Willie, executive director of OTD.

Pal and Gopalan have yet to produce any hydrogen with their technology, but they hope to demonstrate their device within a year. They are confident of success, because the basics of the hydrogen-producing process are very similar to the mechanism of fuel cells themselves, something that the two have been collaborating on for more than four years. While a fuel cell generates energy by splitting electrons from hydrogen, with heat and water as by-products, the new device would use a small electric current, supplemented by the energy stored in the waste, to split steam into hydrogen and oxygen. The other main output, carbon dioxide, would be captured, rather than emitted into the atmosphere.

Click here for part one of the series, “Virus Chaser.”

Click here for part two of the series, “Choking Off Cancer.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.