High temperature electrolysis is more efficient economically than traditional room-temperature electrolysis because some of the energy is supplied as heat, which is cheaper than electricity, and also because the electrolysis reaction is more efficient at higher temperatures. In fact, at 2500 °C, electrical input is unnecessary because water breaks down to hydrogen and oxygen through thermolysis. Such temperatures are impractical; proposed HTE systems operate between 100 °C and 850 °C.
If one assumes that the electricity used comes from a heat engine, it takes 141.86 megajoules (MJ) of heat energy to produce one kg of hydrogen[clarification needed], for the HTE process itself and for the electricity required. At 100 °C, 350 MJ of thermal energy are required (41% efficient). At 850 °C, 225 MJ are required (64% efficient). Above 850 °C, one begins to exceed the capacity of standard chromium steels to resist corrosion, and it's already no easy matter to design and implement an industrial scale chemical process to operate at such a high temperature point.
The selection of the materials for the electrodes and electrolyte in a solid oxide electrolyser cell is essential. One option being investigated for the process used yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) electrolytes, nickel-cermet steam/hydrogen electrodes, and mixed oxide of lanthanum, strontium and cobalt oxygen electrodes.
Even with HTE, electrolysis is a fairly inefficient way to store energy. Significant conversion losses of energy occur both in the electrolysis process, and in the conversion of the resulting hydrogen back into power.
At current hydrocarbon prices, HTE can not compete with pyrolysis of hydrocarbons as an economical source of hydrogen.
HTE is of interest as a more efficient route to the production of hydrogen, to be used as a carbon neutral fuel and general energy storage. It may become economical if cheap non-fossil fuel sources of heat (concentrating solar, nuclear, geothermal) can be used in conjunction with non-fossil fuel sources of electricity (such as solar, wind, ocean, nuclear).
Possible supplies of cheap high-temperature heat for HTE are all nonchemical, including nuclear reactors, concentrating solar thermal collectors, and geothermal sources. HTE has been demonstrated in a laboratory at 108 kilojoules (electric) per gram of hydrogen produced, but not at a commercial scale.
The market for hydrogen production
Given a cheap, high-temperature heat source, other hydrogen production methods are possible. In particular, see the thermochemical sulfur-iodine cycle. Thermochemical production might reach higher efficiencies than HTE because no heat engine is required. However, large-scale thermochemical production will require significant advances in materials that can withstand high-temperature, high-pressure, highly corrosive environments.
The market for hydrogen is large (50 million metric tons/year in 2004, worth about $135 billion/year) and growing at about 10% per year (see hydrogen economy). This market is met by pyrolysis of hydrocarbons to produce the hydrogen, which results in CO2 emissions. The two major consumers are oil refineries and fertilizer plants (each consumes about half of all production). Should hydrogen-powered cars become widespread, their consumption would greatly increase the demand for hydrogen in a hydrogen economy.
High temperature electrolysis with solid oxide electrolyser cells was used to produce 5.37 grams of oxygen per hour on Mars from atmospheric carbon dioxide for the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment in the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, using zirconia electrolysis devices.
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- Hi2h2 - High temperature electrolysis using SOEC
- Final Report Summary – WELTEMP (Water Electrolysis at Elevated Temperatures)
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Most austenitic steels, with chromium contents of at least 18%, can be used at temperatures up to 870°C and [specialized grades] even higher.
- Kazuya Yamada, Shinichi Makino, Kiyoshi Ono, Kentaro Matsunaga, Masato Yoshino, Takashi Ogawa, Shigeo Kasai, Seiji Fujiwara, and Hiroyuki Yamauchi "High Temperature Electrolysis for Hydrogen Production Using Solid Oxide Electrolyte Tubular Cells Assembly Unit", presented at AICHE Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California, November 2006. abstract
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