Savannah River National Laboratory has over 50 years of experience in developing and deploying technologies for safely and efficiently working with hydrogen. This expertise is grounded in decades of technology support for the Savannah River Site’s (SRS) work with tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is a vital component of modern nuclear defense. SRNL’s leading-edge hydrogen research and development not only sustains national security, but also works to ensure our nation’s long-term energy security and a clean environment. That experience has led to the development of technologies for the safe, cost-effective handling of hydrogen. These technologies are equally applicable to the development of hydrogen as an energy source.
Using hydrogen to fuel our economy can reduce dependence on imported petroleum, diversify energy resources, and reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Today, SRNL has the largest collection of hydrogen experts in the country, with more than 80 scientists and engineers dedicated to hydrogen and tritium missions. SRNL expertise ranges from molecular and process modeling to the development of new materials and techniques for separating and storing hydrogen safely and efficiently. Their work is critical to the most important challenges that must be addressed to make the hydrogen economy a reality: safe, clean production of hydrogen without the use of fossil fuels; light-weight, cost-effective storage of hydrogen; hydrogen separation.
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 expertise is being focused on a number of initiatives to support our nation’s hydrogen program, including:
- Leading a team of industrial and academic partners to evaluate the technical and economic issues associated with using the heat from an advanced nuclear reactor or a solar furnace to “crack” water into hydrogen and oxygen.
- Participating in a team studying algae that produce hydrogen when exposed to sunlight.
- Developing thermochemical cycles for use with an advanced nuclear reactor or other high-temperature heat source to produce hydrogen directly from water.
Safe, efficient hydrogen storage is equally important for defense and for transportation applications. How to store hydrogen on board a vehicle is one of the key technological challenges that must be addressed to make future hydrogen-powered vehicles practical for the American consumer. SRNL focuses its research on solid-state hydrogen storage because it is safe, and at the same time more compact and convenient than storage as a gas or liquid.
SRNL is a leader in the development and application of technologies that use metal hydrides – materials which reversibly absorb and release hydrogen like a sponge. SRNL has developed and patented several devices using hydride for storing hydrogen. The hydrides developed for tritium use, however, are too heavy to be practical for transportation applications. Current storage research is studying the potential for:
- A new generation of lighter-weight, complex metal hydrides
- Metal-doped carbon nanotubes – long, thin structures (approximately 1/10,000 the width of a human hair) that show great potential because they may be able to bond with large amounts of hydrogen at room temperature.
- Hollow glass microspheres – microscopic glass “beads” with porous walls, which can be filled with hydrogen storage material.
- SRNL is supporting the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Code Committee on Hydrogen Storage Tanks to help provide the needed changes to the pressure vessel code for safe hydrogen storage.
SRNL’s patented hydrogen storage device uses metal hydrides – metal granules that hold hydrogen in an inherently safe, easily-handled solid state, releasing it based on temperature. Safe, compact, reliable, and efficient, this device has been used to power a public transit bus and an industrial fuel cell vehicle. SRNL has long been a leader in the development and use of metal hydrides, with various patents for hydride compositions and their applications. The laboratory is now at the forefront of research into new classes of lighter-weight hydride materials, which may expand the technology’s applicability for powering vehicles.