GE Global Research’s Hydrogen Electrolyzer

This month Popular Mechanics magazine awarded GE Research’s advanced Hydrogen Electrolyzer its 2006 ’s Breakthrough Award.

GE’s electrolyzer, which was developed by a research team at Global Research led by Richard Bourgeois, was recognized for its potential to make hydrogen production by water electrolysis economically feasible. The novel design makes extensive use of GE-developed materials and processes. A GE invented plastic, Noryl™, replaces complex and expensive metal parts. Metal coating techniques from GE’s aircraft engine and power generation products are used to make high performance electrodes with very low processing costs.

So what’s the payoff?

The U.S. Department of Energy has identified electrolyzer capital costs as a major barrier to the competitiveness of hydrogen fuel for transportation. GE’s electrolyzer has the potential to bring the cost of producing hydrogen down to a level that is competitive with the current price of gasoline.

Why did Popular Mechanics think GE’s Hydrogen Electrolyzer was so cool?

“GE’s electrolyzer represents a profound breakthrough in hydrogen energy that has the potential to greatly expand the possibilities in realizing cleaner, more affordable energy solutions, said James Meigs, Editor-in-Chief, Popular Mechanics magazine. “We were impressed as much with the technology’s potential impact as we were with the creativity of design that enabled the breakthrough itself. We applaud GE for this extraordinary achievement.”

Notice that Popular Mechanics mentioned how they were impressed not just by the invention itself but the “creativity of design that enabled the breakthrough itself.” Maybe they used some version of that new autocad tool that allows the the designer to specify the function while the software spits out the form. Or maybe they used some version of that MIT tool that aids cost estimates for complex projects.

“The core issue with producing hydrogen from electrolyzers is that the economics are not there. They are too expensive to build, so we set out in our program to attack the capital costs,“ Fletcher added.

Today, producing hydrogen by water electrolysis costs at least $8 per kg including capital, energy, and operating costs. GE participated in a program with the U.S. Department of Energy that has the goal of bringing the cost to under $3. By lowering costs on the capital side, GE researchers are confident this goal can be met.

So how far along is this new machine?

Thus far, GE researchers have built and tested an electrolyzer big enough to make a kilogram of hydrogen per hour. A kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline.

Where would the electricity come from?

Electrolyzers, when coupled with wind, solar or nuclear power, produce hydrogen from water …..

Or if the system becomes sufficiently efficient–you might use the hydrogen to run an electrical generator to produce more hydrogen with enough hydrogen left over to run something like say…a pump.

The article is thinking that the capital costs are so low the hydrogen electrolyzer could be used for fueling stations .

Within the next decade, electrolyzers could serve as the foundation for future hydrogen vehicle refueling stations.

However, I’m thinking the Hydrogen Electrolyzer could be used for water pumps when you want to pump a lot of fresh water 1000 miles inland. (But again costs and efficiencies will have to decline further to produce surplus energy more cheaply. –And that’s a matter of finding cheaper & better catalysts.)

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