FSEC Studies Use of Landfill Gas for Hydrogen Production
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By Ken Sheinkopf
Director of Public Affairs, Florida Solar Energy Center

Present hydrogen production research at the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) is geared toward the development of processes that utilize locally available resources to make propellants used by launch vehicles at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the other Cape Canaveral facilities. One research topic of special interest is the economical and environmentally clean production of liquid hydrogen from local renewable feedstocks.

FSEC’s hydrogen division director Ali Raissi points out that “Looking into various ways of producing hydrogen is something a lot of people have researched over the years, but we have the interesting feature of having the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pads virtually in our backyard. We thus looked at production options a little differently than others have been doing.”

FSEC put together a research team led by Nazim Muradov, who had been studying catalytic hydrogen production since 1990, and focused on the best way to produce hydrogen to meet the fuel needs of the space shuttle. “Commercial steam methane reforming is always a first choice,” Dr. Muradov explained, “but relying on such unpredictable resource as natural gas and dumping all the associated CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, especially in a major tourist area, was clearly not something we wanted to do.”

The search for a non-polluting renewable feedstock brought Muradov to consider landfill gas. “I visited a nearby landfill site and found out that they currently burn the gas from the waste to keep methane out of the air, yet there is enough potential fuel in our landfills to meet the shuttles’ propellant needs for the next 50 years.” Muradov calculated that just one local landfill site within 15 miles of the space center could produce enough hydrogen for eight shuttle launches per year.

A grant from NASA’s Glenn Research Center allowed the FSEC team to start some small-scale testing of catalysts for this strategy. They then developed a process for direct reformation of landfill gas into hydrogen. The bench-scale experimental tests and modeling studies have led to pilot-scale testing on a 1-SCFM production unit.

Converting landfill gas to energy uses — heat and electricity — is nothing new,” Dr. Raissi noted. “Where I see the huge value from it, though, will be when we truly have a hydrogen economy in place and the demand for hydrogen is strong. Right now, the idea fits with NASA’s need for space shuttle fuel. But what is so appealing for the future is that the market for hydrogen will be right where people live. People generate waste, and that very waste can be turned back into the fuel they need.”

The research to date has been very promising, developing a way for NASA to meet today’s needs of space fuel. In the future, though, the development of a hydrogen economy in the U.S. will make the promise of hydrogen production from landfill gas and other renewable sources a potentially major source of energy for everyone.

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