Clean Hydrogen: An Abundant Alternative to Fossil Fuels

April 7, 2017

water molecule splitting

Long known to be a finite source of energy, fossil fuels have not really “peaked” and dried up as once predicted in the 1970s. The development of shale oil and newly found sources of natural gas in recent years promise an extended period of abundant, cheap fossil fuels, and experts predict that North America might be energy independent by the next decade.

Yet, the world’s continued use of fossil fuels will only vent more greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2) into earth’s atmosphere. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GHGs pose “significant risks to humans and the environment.” In its report, “Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action,” the EPA estimates that in the U.S. alone, billions of dollars and thousands of lives can be saved with GHG mitigation efforts. Mitigation examples include phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with alternative fuels (such as hydrogen and biomass sources) and renewable energy (solar, geothermal and wind for example). Other mitigation actions include expanding forests to remove greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or using production methods that reduce emissions.

One alternative fuel that has gained worldwide support is hydrogen. NASA has used hydrogen to power the space program since 1958, and giant carmakers Toyota and Honda are already marketing cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells.

The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen makes up more than 90 percent of all known matter. Odorless, colorless and non-toxic, hydrogen is the lightest and smallest element. Hydrogen is also non-corrosive, but it can make some metals brittle. It becomes a gas under atmospheric conditions and is about 14 times lighter than air and 57 times lighter than gasoline vapor. When released into an open area, hydrogen quickly rises and disperses.

Why hydrogen? According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), hydrogen holds promise for growth in both the stationary and transportation energy sectors. It can be produced from diverse domestic resources. A hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle produces zero GHG emissions; the only byproducts are water vapor and warm air.

Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier like electricity, and it only exists in combination with other elements. For example, hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water; it combines with hydrocarbon chains to form fossil fuels. The energy in 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of hydrogen gas is equivalent to the energy in 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of gasoline.

Scientists have developed different methods to separate hydrogen from its combined forms (such as water and natural gas) using solar power, fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Hydrogen can be rejoined with oxygen to run an internal combustion engine or (more popularly) used in a fuel cell to generate electric power for devices such as computers or electric cars.

Currently, the most widely used hydrogen production process is steam methane reformation (SMR), but the process also produces a lot of CO2, known to contribute to the global rise in temperature more than all other greenhouse gases combined. The atmospheric lifetime of CO2 is also longer (hundreds to thousands of years), and in high concentrations, it is deadly. With the SMR process, about 10 tons of CO2 results from the production of 1 ton of hydrogen.

In comparison to SMR, an invention developed by researchers at UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center offers a cleaner way to produce hydrogen. The invention introduces a new type of solar thermochemical water splitting cycles method. In principal, water can be split into a hydrogen part and an oxygen part. However, the process requires a very high temperature—more than 2,000 C, or electricity, like plasma or electrolysis. One way around the high temperature requirement is to use water-splitting cycles. “So instead of splitting water in one step, you are splitting water in several steps, usually in about three or four steps,” said Nazim Muradov, Ph.D., one of the inventors. Each step uses a lower temperature. For example, the first step only requires ambient temperature; the second step requires about 800 or 900 C, and the third step requires the same. The process is analogous to climbing a flight of stairs. A person can exert a lot of energy to jump to the top step or use less energy by walking up several steps to get to the top.

In the cycles, both solar photonic energy and solar thermal energy are used to ensure higher cycle efficiencies. The cycles match the energy content of the solar spectrum to the energy requirements of these cycles. For more details about the invention, refer to the technology sheet: Produce hydrogen fuel from water using solar energy.

Muradov is a well-known and well-respected pioneer in hydrogen research and was recently selected to be a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). For more information about Muradov and his current research, see this month’s faculty feature: FSEC Researcher Recognized for Inventions and Advances in Hydrogen Energy Research.

Optical Fibers: Light Guiding on a String of Glass

March 2, 2017

optical fiber

New Coherent, Spatial Mode Multiplexing Apparatus Significantly Enhances Fiber Laser Output

About 176 years ago in Geneva, Swiss physicist Jean-Daniel Colladon inadvertently demonstrated one of the core principles of fiber optics: total internal reflection (TIR). TIR is a phenomenon that helps us to purposely move and manipulate light, so that we can use its energy in lighting, remote sensing, communications, and laser technology.

Colladon intended only to help his audience see his experiment on fluid flow through various holes and the breaking up of water jets. He used a tank of water with a small hole that allowed a jet to stream out the side. His audience, however, could not see the results, so he piped sunlight into the tank and used a lens to focus the light on the hole. The setup not only lit up the experiment, but it also caused the light rays in the water to strike the edge of the jet at a glancing angle, allowing TIR to trap the rays in the liquid. Thus, instead of traveling in a straight line, the light rays bounced along the curve of the water jet as it poured out the side of the tank, forming what Colladon called a “light pipe.”

He later wrote: “I managed to illuminate the interior of a stream in a dark space. I have discovered that this strange arrangement offers in results one of the most beautiful, and most curious experiments that one can perform in a course on optics.”

Since Colladon’s time, a host of other scientists and researchers have contributed to the discovery and science of guiding light through fiber optics, revolutionizing the way we view and use light. Optical fibers are hair-thin filaments, typically drawn or extruded from clear, ultra-pure glass, polymers, or a combination of the two. Each fiber consists of a central transparent core through which light travels. The core is surrounded by cladding, which may be the same or other material, but has a lower refractive index to promote TIR and prevent energy loss. A buffer layer protects the fiber from moisture and damage.

There are different fibers for different applications. Single-mode fibers, which are about 8-10 microns in diameter, carry only one mode (ray) of light directly down the fiber—the transverse mode. The multi-mode optical fiber has a much larger core (usually 62.5 microns or larger) and can handle multiple modes. The design and the wavelength of the light propagating in a fiber specify whether the fiber will be multi-mode or single-mode. Yet all optical fibers still do the same thing: guide light.

Remarkably, this fine flexible “string” is so versatile that it lets us use the power of light in so many different ways. Fiber optics technology enables surgeons to detect and destroy cancerous tumors, astronomers to determine the elements of distant stars, engineers to identify structural weaknesses, and soldiers to communicate securely in hostile environments. With fiber optics, lasers can bore through rock and steel or precision cut gemstones and ceramics. Moreover, thanks to fiber optics, anyone with a phone or computer can connect with others around the world, anytime, anywhere.

Even after decades of using fiber optics, there is still a lot to discover. Today, UCF has teams of scientists dedicated to advancing the science of fiber optics. The Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) supports research in fiber fabrication, multimaterial fibers, nano-structured fibers, mid-infrared fibers and fiber lasers.

One of those research teams is finding novel methods of fabricating and using fiber optic materials and devices. The Microstructured Fibers and Devices research group, led by Rodrigo Amezcua Correa, Ph.D., is developing both new materials and new structures for fibers.  Two areas that the team is working on are the development of new fibers for high-power lasers and for new light sources. The team is also working on increasing the capacity of optical communications. To learn more about Amezcua’s team and their accomplishments, see this month’s faculty feature.

Amezcua’s expertise in fiber optic fabrication has also led to a new invention that can operate in harsh environments. Together with Axel Schülzgen, Ph.D., head of the Fiber Optics research group, and scientist Jose Enrique Antonio-Lopez, Amezcua developed a new class of fiber optic sensors that are ideal for use in harsh environments. The technology, which has been licensed for commercialization by Multicore Photonics, can be used to sense temperature, pressure, strain, acoustic vibration, mechanical vibration or a combination of sensing applications.

UCF has several other fiber optic technologies available for licensing. For more information, contact John Miner.


By: Kathleen Snoeblen

Startups, Start Here: Three Tips for Raising Investment Capital for Your Technical Innovation

September 8, 2016

Thought cloud: How do I make an investment pitch?Raising capital from angel investors and venture capital firms can provide the funding needed to transform your innovation into a profitable company. But it doesn’t come easily, and for many it doesn’t come at all.

It can be especially difficult for highly technical founding teams without a business background to communicate in terms that investors understand and that will capture their interest enough to invest in the company. If you’re a founder who is not so comfortable talking about business models, market opportunities, or channel strategies, here are three tips for effective communication with an investor audience:

  1. Properly frame your investment pitch

I’ve seen many pitches fail to capture the attention of the investor audience because the entrepreneur focused too heavily on the technology and product rather than business model and market opportunity. Of course you want investors to understand what’s special and unique about your innovation but remember, this is not a product pitch. Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain that there’s a big gap in the marketplace and a customer need that must be filled, and you have a profitable plan for doing just that. It doesn’t matter how novel or ingenious your invention is if you don’t have the execution plan in place to connect with and sell to a lucrative market. Investors are investing in you, the entrepreneur, and your business, not just the product.

Again, think about this from the investor’s perspective – they’re in this to make money! And how do they make money? Return on investment. Your company’s growth plan and your (most likely) exit strategy is what they care about. They want to see you know how to scale this company and can make enough profit along the way to have a rewarding exit opportunity in 3-7 years, because that’s when they finally make a return on their investment.

  1. Traction is king

Traction is one of the most important factors for gauging startup success. It refers to any early commitments you’ve received from the supply- or demand-side of your business such as sales, purchase orders, LOIs (letters of intent), contracts, grant awards, sponsorships, or new team hires – any way that stakeholders show a commitment of time, money, interest, or resources into what you’re building. Traction in your market is especially important to investors who want you to prove that customers will buy your product.

  1. Have a thoughtful plan for use of funds

One of the first things an investor might want to know is why you are raising money. Do you need to hire more engineers? Do you need a sales and marketing budget? Are you making final adjustments to your product design? Lay out a plan that includes internal (operations-focused) and external (customer-focused) milestones that you’ve set for the company to reach over the next few years, and specific milestones you’ll reach with this infusion of cash you’re seeking.

Not only is it important to show you have a clear plan for using the money, but that each dollar invested will go a long way. Explain how much closer this investment will get you to a market-ready product, first customers, steady revenues, etc. Investors don’t want to see their money as just a “drop in the bucket” but instead that it will add a great deal of value to growing the company. It’s typically a turn-off for many investors to see a company and product that still need millions of dollars and many years of R&D before it will start bringing in money. Ideally you want to convey that you have a customer-ready product and have proven your business model, and now you just need money to replicate and scale what you’re doing. The more you have reduced business risk in the eyes of investors, the better.

For more guidance on raising capital, contact Jack Henkel at the University of Central Florida’s Venture Accelerator Lab. We have a coaching staff to help technology entrepreneurs and researchers identify appropriate funding opportunities and prepare a strong investment pitch.