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NETL, DOE Laboratories Developing New Air Separation Technologies for Hydrogen Production
Several collaborative projects are under way at #NETL and its partner labs to develop advanced air separation technologies that can produce bulk oxygen that is needed to make clean hydrogen fuel.

NETL researchers, and project partners at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, are developing advanced air separation technologies that produce oxygen, a valuable gas that can be used to make hydrogen fuel, a much-needed commodity for transitioning to a clean power sector. 

Air separation technologies separate atmospheric air into its primary components, nitrogen and oxygen, which can be used for valuable commercial supplies, industrial applications, manufacturing and more. 

The projects NETL and its collaborators are advancing are actively addressing climate change by reducing CO2 emissions via clean hydrogen generation in oxygen-blown, gasification-based plants with carbon capture and storage.  Clean hydrogen can be generated from biomass and coal wastes in this manner with zero carbon emissions. The hydrogen can be used as a clean fuel in turbine applications. 

“The country is preparing to go through a profound energy transformation as it leverages new technologies to decarbonize its energy infrastructure. Air separation, coupled with carbon capture technologies can help us achieve this,” said David Lyons, technology manager for NETL’s Gasification program. “By providing a key ingredient for hydrogen fuel and preventing emissions of carbon dioxide in the process, these technologies can contribute to a sustainable energy infrastructure, one of the chief goals of the Biden-Harris Administration.”

As part of this effort, NETL researchers are developing novel materials called oxygen carriers to which oxygen can absorb and desorb inside an air separation reactor, effectively separating the oxygen from other components, primarily nitrogen. The goal of the work is to design low-cost, high-performance carrier materials and then design a reactor that functions optimally with these materials. The technology, once deployed, could provide a cost-competitive option for modular systems, which can be optimized for an individual operator’s specific needs. This means both flexibility and cost savings for potential industry users.

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers are working on a novel system that uses superconducting magnets to generate 10-90 tons of liquid oxygen per day. A key focus of this project is on making the technology small enough to be integrated with smaller, local plants. Techno-economic analyses indicated the system will have the operational flexibility to do so.

Other researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a modular air separation unit incorporating special ceramic membranes that are highly permeable and can produce 10 tons of oxygen per day. This technology can deliver high-purity oxygen without the need for electrical energy.  

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are also developing a modular air separation unit for producing high-purity oxygen using novel polybenzimidazole derived carbon molecular sieve hollow fiber membranes that are selective for oxygen and nitrogen. The design will be optimized to minimize energy losses, enabling an efficient unit that can be integrated with existing gasification systems.

At Idaho National Laboratory, researchers are developing novel mixed matrix membranes that can separate oxygen from air. The mixed matrix membranes will have high gas permeability and selectivity, making them well suited for air separation. The goal of this project is to improve membrane performance and durability to enable a less energy-intensive process for separating oxygen from air, which will lower the risk for deployment on a commercial scale.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.