VALPARAISO | About 16 years ago, Robert Palumbo got the idea of taking something nobody wants — basically, rust — and using it to produce something almost everybody can use — hydrogen — using solar energy.
Unfortunately, Palumbo, now chairman of the engineering department at Valparaiso University, got the idea while working in a place where nobody was really interested in the potential of his idea.
About 10 years later, another scientist, Richard Diver at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, got the same idea, and now they are working together to prove the concept is as good as they think.
Palumbo and Valparaiso University received a $300,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for something called Solar Thermal Decoupled Electrolysis. It's a complicated name for a relatively simple idea that could produce a commercially viable alternative fuel for transportation.
As anyone who didn't fall asleep in high school chemistry class knows, hydrogen can easily be produced by running an electric current through water. To produce it on the scale needed for use as a fuel source would require a huge investment in electricity.
Palumbo's idea is to produce this alternative fuel source by using an alternative fuel source — the sun — to reduce the cost by 80 percent. The solar collector at the university is the ideal place to do the experiments with the help of junior and senior level chemistry and mechanical engineering students.
Luke Venstrom, VU associate professor of mechanical engineering, described the process as taking hematite, a form of iron ore, and zapping it with the sun's rays concentrated at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit inside a reactor to strip away the oxygen molecules.
This transforms it into another form of iron ore called magnetite, which is then mixed with water and acid and a much lower electrical current to generate the hydrogen. In the process, the magnetite is converted back to hematite that can be recycled through the process again and again.
Scott Duncan, VU associate professor of mechanical engineering, said the hematite probably would be broken down at a solar facility in the desert southwest, which gets a lot more sunshine, and then sent to a place with a lot of water, like the Great Lakes.
Venstrom said the challenges are designing the high temperature reactor to be as efficient as possible and doing the electrolysis with the lowest voltage possible. The students already are building a prototype of the reactor, which he compared to the rotary action of a cement truck only a lot smaller and with really high temperatures.
"We will test the high temperature reactor in the summer," Venstrom said. "We will see what form the hematite we get back is in and how we can get it back to its original state."
"The more efficient it is, the more chance it will be cost effective to be commercially viable," Duncan said.
The university is working with Diver and Peter Kissinger, at Purdue University, on the project. Senior mechanical engineering student Jesse Fosheim, who already has spent quite a bit of time working on the ideas for the reactor, said, "Some day you could drive a hydrogen-powered car in the rain and say it is solar powered."