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Home Power Unit Combines Solar, Wind, Fuel Cell and Energy Storage

June 19, 2008

The costs of various fossil-fueled energy sources have fluctuated widely, encouraging research into alternative methods of energy generation and storage. That has caused engineering researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington to develop processes to create hydrogen using solar and wind power and ethanol or other renewable biofuels.

Just as power from solar and wind sources can be stored in batteries, hydrogen can be stored and utilized in a fuel cell to deliver electrical energy, and much more of it for a given storage space. This feature led Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Babak Fahimi and his students to complete a hydrogen project resulting in an uninterruptable power source.

In their process, Dr. Fahimi and his team took a low voltage current (60-65 volts) produced by solar and/or wind generation and converted it to a high voltage (20,000 volts) powering a cold plasma chamber containing ethanol. In the chamber, excited electrons collide with large molecules of ethanol and decompose them into hydrogen and byproducts such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The gases are then stored in separate tanks.

The cold plasma chamber is just one part of the team’s energy generation and storage system. A combination of wind, solar, fuel cell and battery sources result in a self-contained, multipurpose package that can continuously supply five kilowatts of electricity; a typical home operates on two-to-three kilowatts. The system automatically switches from one source to another, including external, as demand and economics change.

In the current process, one watt of solar and/or wind energy is needed to harvest four watts of hydrogen energy. The process can also use natural gas in place of ethanol to create hydrogen.

Dr. Fahimi’s team is investigating ways to increase the performance of the cold plasma chamber through radio frequency plasma, microwave plasma and magnetic enhancement of low frequency plasma. They are also consulting with researchers at the University of Oklahoma to use a catalyst to capture the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into a usable product.

Dr. Fahimi hopes to attract an entrepreneur to support the commercialization of the unit. His team includes recent Ph.D. graduate Mahesh Krishnamurthy, Ph.D. candidate Wei Jiang and degreed undergraduate Job Brunet.

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