Heating homes and buildings with oil, propane, or natural gas costs a lot of money and pumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. How great would it be if there was a solar panel that would convert sunlight into clean burning zero emissions hydrogen to keep us all toasty warm at home and at work?
According to Belgian news source VRT NWS, scientists at KU Leuven, located in Flanders, Belgium, say they have created a solar panel that uses sunlight to make hydrogen from the moisture in the air. It can produce up to 250 liters of hydrogen gas a day. Professor Johan Martens and his team have been working on this for a decade. At first, the amount of hydrogen produced was minuscule but in a recent demonstration on a cloudy day, observers could see large quantities of hydrogen bubbles appear almost as soon as the demonstration panel was rolled into the sunlight.
“It’s actually a unique combination of physics and chemistry,” Martens says. “It the beginning we had 0.1 percent yield and we really had to search for those hydrogen molecules, today you see them coming up in bubbles, so that’s ten years of work, always improving, looking for problems, so you end up with something that can work effectively.” Researcher Jan Rongé adds, “Over an entire year, the panel produces an average of 250 liters per day, which is a world record. Twenty of these panels produce enough heat and electricity to get through the winter in a very well insulated house and still have electricity left over.”
The panels are still a long way from commercial production, but a new prototype will soon be installed at the nearby home of Leen Peeters, an engineer who has turned her home into a living lab where she tests and evaluates energy conservation technologies. Her well insulated house has solar panels that power a solar water heater and a heat pump. It is not connected to the local natural gas supply. Only in the winter months does she use electricity from the grid.
If the prototype panels work as well on her house as they do in the lab, more of them will be ground-mounted in her neighborhood and the hydrogen produced used to help heat the homes of Peeters’ 39 neighbors. Any excess hydrogen can be stored and used the following winter.
Hydrogen is highly combustible, which can make it dangerous, especially if there is a leak inside a closed space. But Rongé says “With hydrogen gas, the risks of accidents are no greater than with natural gas.” (People who live north of Boston where multiple explosions leveled dozens of homes last year may find that statement less than reassuring.) A typical home would need about 4 cubic meters of storage — the size of a typical fuel oil tank, he says.
No one knows exactly how much a complete system of panels, storage tanks, and a furnace that runs on hydrogen might cost, but since heat is one of the largest expenses in any utility budget, especially in cold climates, it could easily be an attractive proposition for many. How terrific would it be to make your own fuel right at home? No oil or propane trucks to wait for. No wildly fluctuating utility bills as the price of oil and natural gas ricochet up and down from year to year.One of the things that makes rooftop solar so appealing is that the cost of the system is fixed. That economic stability could be very appealing to lots of people and help sell lots of these systems.
Professor Martens is excited to see the prototype panels get a full real world trial. “We wanted to design something sustainable that is affordable and can be used anywhere. We work with cheap raw materials and we do not need precious metals or other expensive components.” One other factor? No carbon emissions from fuel oil and propane trucks or pumps needed to compress natural gas. Martens and his team are optimistic. “The sky’s the limit,” they say.