UF to develop green hydrogen with water, sunlight 

Dr. Jonathan Scheffe explains the system for breaking water molecules apart at UF's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Dr. Jonathan Scheffe explains the system for breaking water molecules apart at UF's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Photo by Seth Johnson

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.7 million to UF and Switzerland-based company Synhelion to research the production of green hydrogen, aiming for a lower cost to produce. 

The three-year project builds on proprietary technology and specialties of both UF and Synhelion and will tackle one of the Department of Energy’s seven Energy Earthshots initiatives to increase renewable energy. Synhelion and UF announced the grant in June.  

Dr. Jonathan Scheffe has worked on green hydrogen projects since joining UF in 2014. He said the school has received grants in the past to further the work, but this one is larger than most.  

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“Our ultimate mission is to educate graduate students on top of all of our teaching loads, and in order to educate the graduate students, we need research dollars to come in to support them,” Scheffe said in an interview.  

UF and Synhelion have other joint projects, but Scheffe said this will be the first project that tackles green hydrogen. The project will comprise 10-12 team members from the two organizations.  

The goal of the project is to lower the cost of making green hydrogen using concentrated solar power.  

While hydrogen is already used as an energy source, Scheffe said it is typically made using natural gas. UF and Synhelion aim to produce hydrogen with renewable resources: sunlight and water.  

Water, or H2O, already has hydrogen. The team will separate the oxygen from the water molecules to get just the hydrogen. Like a magnifying glass focusing sunbeams to light a fire, the researchers will use mirrors to focus sunlight and use that energy to break apart the water.  

Although, it’s a more complicated process than just that, requiring temperatures of 1,400 degrees Celsius.  

A condensed solar power facility in China.
Courtesy Unsplash A condensed solar power facility in China.

Concentrated solar power is already used to generate electricity by gathering sunlight with mirrors and aiming it toward a central receiver. Scheffe said Synhelion provides proprietary technology to capture the sun’s energy—the receiver part—and UF has worked to improve the chemical process of breaking the water molecules with that energy. 

Concentrated solar power facilities measure in the acres on an industrial scale. But Scheffe said the project’s model will be around three-square feet, built and tested on UF’s campus.  

In the first year, Scheffe said the team will perform controlled experiments on the chemical process. Using those results, year two will consist of analyzing the results to design the most efficient combination of Synhelion’s receiver and UF’s chemical process. After building the model, the team will test it in the third year under controlled conditions.  

Scheffe said Florida’s cloudy conditions hurt the efficiency of concentrated solar power. But the team won’t use the sun for their tests. Instead, they’ll use UF’s High Flux Solar Simulator.  

The simulator mimics sunlight with an array of xenon arc lamps, allowing controlled experiments to arrive at a proof of concept. UF is one of three academic institutions in the country with the device.  

“The nice thing about xenon is that it burns at a temperature very similar to the sun so the spectrum is a very, very good approximation of the solar spectrum,” Scheffe said.  

For its EarthShot initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy set a goal of reducing the production cost of green hydrogen by 80% in the next 10 years—or to arrive at a cost of $1 per 1 kilogram in 1 decade. 

“That’s a very ambitious target, in my opinion,” Scheffe said. “Getting down to $2 per kilogram, which was historically the Department of Energy’s goal, is probably more realistic for this project.” 

As a comparison, Scheffe said a kilogram of hydrogen has the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline.  

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