A West Virginia University engineer’s research may be helping the drive to make hydrogen a dominant worldwide fuel source, more than 50 years after scientists first used the term “hydrogen economy” to describe it.
Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Xingbo Liu will assist in creating brand-new, cutting-edge coatings for the blades of turbines used in massive power generation. The concepts and technology of current natural gas turbines, especially those found in power plants, will be compatible with these protective layers, allowing them to endure the intense heat and corrosion of hydrogen combustion.
If successful, the research could play a key role in bridging West Virginia’s existing energy industry with the energy industry it wants, enabling an energy revolution that is more like an evolution where clean power builds on existing resources, in this case, the state’s power plants and natural gas reserves.
The majority of the $2 million Department of Energy grant used to support Liu’s initiative is intended to decarbonize the American power and industrial sectors, advance the production of renewable energy, and increase America’s economic competitiveness.
According to Liu, who is also the endowed chair of the engineering and associate dean for research at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, “there are numerous ways to turn a turbine and generate power.” “Heat is used in all of today’s prevalent methods.
Today, around two-thirds of turbines are powered by coal or natural gas, with coal accounting for about 20 per cent and natural gas for roughly 40 per cent of the total electricity produced in the United States. We use nuclear reactions less frequently to heat water and produce steam.
He noted that hydropower, followed by other clean energies like wind and solar energy, is the second most popular source of electricity after nuclear energy.
There is no carbon dioxide or other byproduct produced when hydrogen interacts with oxygen and burns, only water in the form of steam. A turbine’s blades can be spun by that steam, turning a generator and creating power. Since the 1970s, hydrogen has been discussed in relation to clean energy because it has the highest energy per mass of any fuel and only emits water as waste.
However, using hydrogen exclusively as a source of electricity is a concept for a day that is still rather far off. The more immediate objective for Liu’s team is a turbine that burns a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas as fuel.
The basis of a hydrogen-driven turbine is the same as one powered by natural gas, but Liu noted that hydrogen has different combustion properties than gas. “Hydrogen combustion has two distinguishing features. One is that pure steam, which can be quite caustic, is produced as a result of the reaction. The temperature is the other. Combustion is extremely hot, and temperatures during combustion can occasionally exceed the metal component’s melting point.
Liu’s study focuses on developing coatings that will prevent turbine blades from corroding, oxidising, or even melting when hydrogen fuel is introduced to natural gas, which is the turbine’s hotter component.
People frequently employ coatings, Liu noted, such as on the lenses of eyeglasses or nonstick cookware. “There have been two distinct coating types used on turbines. One is referred to as an environmental barrier coating, which guards against corrosion on your component. The heat barrier coating is the additional coating. Like the oven mitt you use when cooking, it acts as a heat insulator. The heat barrier coating is the focus of the majority of our research.
The study by Xingbo Liu, “High-Entropy Alloy-based Coating to Safeguard Critical Components in Hydrogen Turbine Power System,” specialises in coatings formed from a combination of various materials.
According to Liu, “the materials we use now often include one significant element, like copper or aluminium.” It’s an aluminium alloy, not pure aluminium, although aluminium makes up the majority of the alloy. In a high-entropy alloy, there isn’t just one main component; rather, a number of components are combined and share a common composition. Since it’s essentially a stew, it provides us with some unusual properties that we believe hold promise for this application.
Power plants will be one important step closer to operating on a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas if the WVU team can successfully develop a coating that safeguards turbine blades from hydrogen’s intensely hot and corrosive steam, lowering carbon emissions and rising demand for natural gas as an energy-producing fuel source. However, Liu thinks those aren’t the only advantages hydrogen can bring to West Virginia, where in 2019 natural gas overtook coal as the main energy producer in the Mountain State.
We have natural gas here in West Virginia, he continued. “The Marcellus Shale region, one of three major gas fields, is where we are located. These days, we just burn that gas. But currently, natural gas is used to produce at least 95% of hydrogen.
While the majority of the study will take place at Statler College at West Virginia University, the network of collaboration also includes the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Praxair Surface Technologies, a division of Linde, the largest industrial gas firm in the world.
The incorporation of hydrogen into natural gas for burning is currently, according to Liu, “still in the research and development stage.” Although hydrogen-fueled turbines have been shown, no one has used a hydrogen-fueled turbine commercially.
However, progress is quickening as some researchers look at using hydrogen as a fuel source outside of power plants.
There is currently an experimental hydrogen-powered aircraft, according to Liu. You can view the video by searching for “hydrogen plane” on Google. Of course, that was only a demonstration, and you can’t actually use it right now. But isn’t that what research is all about? You try new things and new ideas, and even though some of them will fail, some of them will prove to be beneficial.
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