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PULLMAN, Wash. – A group of Washington State University students has taken second place in an international hydrogen design competition with an innovative design for a power plant that can produce heat, hydrogen, and electric power from wheat straw.
 
The annual Hydrogen Student Design Contest challenges university students to design hydrogen energy applications for real-world use. This year’s competition required that students design a power plant system that produces electricity, heat, and hydrogen for their university campus using local materials.  In their first time competing, the WSU team placed second among 20 teams from around the world, including teams from Asia, Europe, and North America. The award was announced last weekend at the 2012 Young Scientist Symposium of the World Hydrogen Energy Conference in Toronto, Canada.
 
Whitman County is the top producer of wheat in the U.S. and produces about 650 million pounds of wheat straw that almost nobody wants. After the wheat is harvested, most of the wheat straw is either burned or tilled underground, and there is little economic incentive to harvest it.
 
The students developed a plan to make the wheat straw into a valuable resource for the campus and community. In particular, their plan calls for collecting the wheat straw and then using a heating method called pyrolysis to break it down into biochar, a material that is similar to charcoal. From the biochar, the students developed methods for extracting hydrogen and breaking it into base components that have value. The students developed plans to use the hydrogen for fuel-cell powered buses, for heating and electricity, and to produce fertilizer.
 
The facility could produce enough hydrogen to cut down the natural gas requirements of the WSU steam plant, add 4.4 megawatts of electricity to Pullman’s power grid, and heat nearby greenhouses. Furthermore, the system could provide enough hydrogen to power Pullman’s entire fleet of transit buses as well as WSU’s fleet of work vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses already run in some cities, and the only waste product from the vehicles is water.
 
The process is highly beneficial for the entire community, said team member Brennan Pecha, a graduate student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.  The system minimizes air pollution, creates clean energy to supplement the power grid, and gives Whitman County farmers a use for their wasted straw. The resources needed for such a facility are readily available on the WSU campus.
Jacob Leachman, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, initially suggested the idea of the contest to students. The students also sought out help from Manuel Garcia-Perez, associate professor in biological systems engineering and Su Ha, associate professor in chemical engineering who does work in fuel cells.
“We had all the pieces to make this happen – along with a really good group of students,’’ said Leachman.
 As part of the competition, the team had to develop a feedstock analysis and technical design. They also had to address safety and code compliance issues, conduct an economic and environmental analysis, and develop a business and marketing plan.
“This could actually work,’’ said Leachman. “It’s rare that you get an opportunity for such a win-win. You can help the farmers, and Pullman could become far and away the most energy efficient city in the country.’’
 
And, the project could do even more. A week and a half before the final project deadline, the group got their full system analysis working and came to Leachman with a problem. They didn’t know what to do with all of the hydrogen the system was producing.
“Jake Bair said it best,’’ said Leachman. “’We’ve got too much hydrogen.’’’
The students came up with the idea of creating ammonia fertilizer. The students still only ended up using fourteen percent of the wheat straw in the county.
Students on the project included Brennan Pecha (ChemE), Jacob Bair (ME), Eli Chambers (ChemE), Cale Levengood (ME), and Shi-Shen Liaw (BioSysE).
 
The contest was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Combined Heat and Power Partnership, the World Hydrogen Energy Conference 2012, and the International Association for Hydrogen Energy.
 
The students won cash to attend a meeting later this year in the San Francisco Bay Area of the California Hydrogen Business Council. And, Leachman is working to get support for further research and to someday make the project a reality.