Space rockets may one day be fueled by tap water instead of gas tanks, thanks to research from the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Department of Energy recently awarded a team of researchers from UT and ORNL a $2 million grant to decrease the cost to produce hydrogen fuel cells. The DOE also granted a separate $1.5 million to a UT-led team for research on more efficient fuel cells. These research efforts could help make hydrogen viable as fuel storage and limit environmental damage from burning fossil fuels.
Feng Zhang, UT associate professor in aerospace engineering and member of NanoHELP, is leading the first project to reduce the cost produce fuel cells. Matthew Mench, the department head for Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering at UT, is also on the team.
The second project is led by Thomas Zawodzinski, the Governor’s Chair for Electrical Energy Conversion and Storage at UT and ORNL. He is researching methods to make hydrogen fuel cells more efficient.
Hydrogen fuel cells may fuel the future
Both teams are looking for ways to improve the way hydrogen is split from oxygen in water in hydrogen batteries. This is typically done through a process called electrolysis.
During this process, water is essentially zapped with electricity to separate its atoms. And when hydrogen is removed from oxygen, it can be used to create electricity.
When hydrogen is not connected to another atom, its electron can be pulled and passed through a circuit. That circuit can then be used to energize lights, engines, cars, rockets or entire cities. After the electron passes through the circuit, it is reunited with its hydrogen atom. That atom is then reunited with oxygen, producing water. That water is then recycled and its molecules are split again, continuing the cycle and preserving energy.