April 2008

Six-Year NASA Hydrogen Research Grant Comes to a Close

For the past six years, seven of Florida’s state universities have been working together to conduct research and develop a variety of hydrogen technologies through a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. These research activities have been conducted under the Hydrogen Research at Florida Universities program that was managed and led by the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). Participating universities included Florida International University, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, University of West Florida, and the University of Florida.

photo showing "smart paint" tape detecting hydrogen leak  around pipe flange

The dark spot in the "smart tape" indicates a hydrogen leak around the flange.
(Photo: Nick Waters )

The research projects conducted during this program revolved around developing hydrogen technologies that could supply NASA’s need for hydrogen fuel, ensure safe handling of hydrogen fuel, deliver new power options, and provide a means to decrease the high costs of the launch process. Specific technology developments were made for hydrogen production and storage, rapid detection of hydrogen, hydrogen and helium separation processes, fuel cell power systems, and the education of students.

The hydrogen technologies were developed for NASA’s use in space and spaceport applications. However, some of the projects have more common applications for the use of hydrogen on Earth. One such technology is the novel hydrogen sensing tape, called “Smart Tape”, which turns color from light brown to dark gray when hydrogen gas is detected. Since hydrogen is a colorless and odorless gas that cannot be easily detected, this tape rapidly pin points the location of hydrogen leaks.

Photo of two scientists with aparatus in laboratory.
FSEC researchers test a pilot-scale hydrogen production unit used for reforming landfill gas into hydrogen.
(Photo: Nick Waters )

One of the most successful projects was the development of methods for extracting and producing hydrogen from common Florida waste materials. In the Brevard County area, FSEC researchers developed and constructed an operating pilot facility that produced hydrogen using landfill gas. Results showed that the landfill gas site in Cocoa, Fla., could produce enough hydrogen to fuel 100 Space Shuttle launches. A similar hydrogen production process was developed using discarded automobile lubricant oils, a toxic waste product.

Many significant technical achievements have been made from this research endeavor. The university researchers involved in this program have written more than 250 technical publications on their efforts and given more than 200 presentations to national audiences on project results during the last two years of the program alone. In addition, results from the projects have led to the filing of more than 20 patents.

“This is the first time several of Florida’s state universities have worked simultaneously on one grant, achieving one common goal,” said Dr. David Block, FSEC Director Emeritus and project leader. “It has by far been the most positive collaborative opportunity that the state university system has been involved in.”

The cooperative nature of this NASA grant has served as an enabling tool for the participating universities to obtain more than $6 million in the past two years from other federal agencies. These additional projects are based on work related to this NASA effort.

While the program focused mainly on research and development, education and public outreach also played an important part. These activities included faculty and graduate student employment and incorporation of research projects into educational activities, ranging from undergraduate student projects to doctorate dissertations.

As part of FSEC’s contribution to the education and outreach initiatives for this program, fuel cell short courses were developed by FSEC and have been offered for the past three years. FSEC has also successfully accomplished the incorporation of hydrogen education in K-12 student and teacher programs through the development of curriculum, professional development for teachers and special events for students. Events such as student field trips and teacher training sessions have brought nearly 800 students, teachers and parents to the facility each year for instruction on hydrogen, solar, and energy efficiency.

The program ended in March, 2008, but FSEC and the participating universities will continue to work toward supplying hydrogen for the current demand and eventually as the nation’s future fuel source for transportation.