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Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Laboratory Cool. Fuel.

Hydrogen 101

Here we have provided answers to some frequently asked questions regarding our lab and what we do.

What Are You Looking For?

How is HYPER Lab research relevant?

HYPER is the only academic research laboratory in the United States focused on cryogenic hydrogen. Cryogenic hydrogen is key to aerospace and clean energy industries. We cannot solve the climate crisis without cryogenic hydrogen as one of humanity’s tools.

Why cryogenic hydrogen?

Liquid hydrogen has more than twice the energy per weight (known as specific energy) of any other fuel. However, hydrogen has a very low energy density (energy per volume) compared to other fuels. To increase this density hydrogen is usually liquefied.

Liquid hydrogen has over twice the density of hydrogen pressurized to 700 bar (10,000 psi) at room temperature, and about 1000 times higher than hydrogen at standard temperature and pressure. Cryogenic hydrogen is more quantum mechanical than classical, potentially enabling new kinds of technologies.

How dangerous is hydrogen?

Our most popular post is on this topic: So just how dangerous is hydrogen? Like all fuels, hydrogen can be dangerous if you do not know the rules for working with hydrogen.

These rules are different from other fuels. But if you follow the rules and standards, hydrogen can actually be safer than other fuels and energy storage devices like batteries due to how quickly the energy disperses after a leak and how easy the leaks are to detect with instruments.

What role will hydrogen play in the renewable energy future?

As a zero-carbon, clean, electrofuel (can be produced from renewable electricity), hydrogen is perfect to address the most difficult challenges of climate change: aviation, freight transport, seasonal grid storage, decarborizing chemical (ammonia fertilizer) and material (steel) production, among others.

Over 30% of the nation’s groceries are moved via a hydrogen fuel cell forklift ultimately fueled by liquid hydrogen. If you have anything on your person purchased from Amazon or Walmart, there is a decent chance it was moved to you in part via hydrogen technologies.

What is that chirping sound going on in the background?

Prior to 2000, it was exceedingly difficult and expensive to do research on liquid hydrogen as you needed to have a $M liquefier and storage facility. That chirping sound is a closed cycle cryogenic refrigerator that we use to liquefy small amounts of hydrogen for study. The sound is a result of pressure oscillations within the helium refrigerant used by the cryocooler.

How is hydrogen made?

Hydrogen is so reactive it is very rare to find pure hydrogen on Earth. But because hydrogen is the most popular atom in the universe, by far, there are many substances we can make hydrogen from.

Hydrogen can be made in many ways, though electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen is the best, and steam-methane-reforming with carbon sequestration is another. You can make a hydrogen electrolyzer on your own (if you’re careful) using a 9 volt battery connected to the graphite cores of two wooden pencils in a glass of water.

How do we get power from hydrogen?

The letters ‘ph’ from your chemistry class are Latin for ‘Pondus Hydrogenii’, or the power of hydrogen. This tells us that most chemical reactions are driven by hydrogen and that clean hydrogen is key for clean chemistry. Although hydrogen is a great fuel and can be burned in most fuel burning appliances with small adaptations, the cleanest way to get power from hydrogen is via fuel cell technology.

Fuel cells use a catalyst to combine hydrogen with oxygen while producing useful electricity (essentially burning the hydrogen perfectly, one molecule at a time). Fuel cells having a theoretically limiting efficiency close to 83% but most practical fuel cells operate near 60% efficiency (double the efficiency of most internal combustion engines).

What is the efficiency of hydrogen liquefaction and what does it need to be?

If you through $100M on the table for a hydrogen liquefier, you would get a system that can liquefy 1 kg of hydrogen with 10 kW-hr of electricity, or 10 kW-hr/kg LH2. This is known as Specific Energy Consumption (SEC). That system would also have to produce 30,000 kg of LH2 per day and cost $3M/1,000 kg capacity.

The ideal SEC for hydrogen produced by an electrolyzer at 40 bar is approximately 2.8 kW-hr/kg LH2, meaning that current systems are operating less than 30% of the theoretically possible efficiency. This makes hydrogen liquefaction the biggest opportunity in all of clean energy and aerospace.

What are the key challenges to mass implementation?

Improving the efficiency, modularity, and cost of hydrogen liquefiers to the point where they could easily be implemented in the column of an off-shore wind turbine. Improving the utilization of liquid hydrogen by eliminating liquid hydrogen boil-off losses for aerospace, seasonal, and backup energy storage.

While we have many new materials and manufacturing methods for making hydrogen systems, very few materials have basic property measurements at cryogenic temperatures that can help engineers design these systems. Finally, too few people know the fundamentals for safely using cryogenic hydrogen.

How did HYPER gain the required skills to lead in this space?

Dr. Leachman wrote the current property models recommended by NIST for hydrogen during his Master’s Thesis at the University of Idaho. He then learned experimental cryogenics for studying hydrogen during his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who happened to have a hydrogen experiment at the time.

A combination of Washington state level support sustained the HYPER laboratory during the early years before federal agencies began supporting hydrogen research again.