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Hot new approach to 'green' hydrogen production is 'next logical step'

May 23, 2019

Electrifying the conventional fossil-fueled approaches to steam-methane reforming (SMR) enables a "greener" approach to industrial hydrogen production, one that maximizes methane conversion while limiting the formation of unwanted carbon byproducts, researchers report. If implemented globally, the researchers' more efficient reactors - which are about 100 times smaller than traditional reactors, otherwise as big as a six-story building - could eliminate nearly 1% of all global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. "We see the electrified reformer as the next logical step in the chemical industry," says co-author Peter Mortensen in a related video, "because in this way we can transform the industry going towards greener processes, but [with] processes that are at the same time feasible so ... we don't have to increase the production prices." Steam methane reforming (SMR) is the most common process used to produce hydrogen, which is an important ingredient in the synthesis of industrial chemicals, like the ammonia used in agricultural fertilizers. Using very high temperatures and steam, SMR reformers convert methane into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. However, this widely used method also has a significant CO2 footprint; not only is the greenhouse gas produced as a byproduct of the reaction, fossil-fuel burning furnaces are used to supply the heat required to drive the reactions. While SMR generates nearly 50% of the global supply of hydrogen, it's estimated that the process accounts for nearly 3% of global CO2 emissions, and despite decades of research into improving the efficiency of the process, no lower-emission alternatives have been implemented at an industrial scale, the authors say. Here, Wismann et al. present an electrically-driven version of methane reforming, which uses an AC current and direct electrical resistance to heat the reactors. Unlike conventional SMR, the electrified process supplies heat uniformly across the reactor. What's more, integrated heating allows for exceptionally compact reactor designs. In a related Perspective, Kevin Geem et al. suggest that electrification of other industrial chemical processes could pave a sustainable path forward, particularly as the costs of electricity from renewable sources continues to decline.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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