Our Stories

Darrell McGie: Paving the Hydrogen Highway

Darrell McGie '06 has big ideas. He believes Oregon's energy future lies in producing limitless hydrogen from what is now river-polluting waste water.

McGie, who is pursuing a double major in politics and environmental science at Willamette University, was working on his environmental studies thesis when he came up with the novel concept of producing hydrogen from wastewater. "My idea is to produce hydrogen for fuel through electrolysis. However, instead of using subsurface water, I want to use wastewater."

The benefits of using wastewater, a potential polluter, versus fresh water, which is becoming increasingly scarce, are many. "Wastewater is a waste that has a theoretical zero cost for producing energy. Wastewater treatment plants in Oregon have a lot of wastewater that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) doesn't like returning to the rivers. If we could electrolyze that wastewater to produce hydrogen, it would decrease our dependence on oil and help move to a hydrogen economy."

There are currently two methods to produce hydrogen. One, employ a reformation process using natural gas or other non-renewable petroleum product or, two, use electrolysis for molecule separation. In electrolysis, low-voltage electricity is passed through water, which separates the water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. "The reformation process produces a lot of carbon dioxide that contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming. Electrolysis is the green way to go because there are no residual pollutants."

McGie wanted to explore his wastewater-hydrogen idea further, so he applied for a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant. The $3,000 stipend encourages original research or work outside the classroom. "Producing hydrogen from wastewater has never been done before. I wanted to explore the limitations and barriers to the technology of using wastewater."

He began by visiting wastewater treatment plants and talking to managers who work on the frontlines of wastewater management. He found both exciting potential and vexing limitations. "Wastewater treatment plants, especially larger urban plants, are cogeneration plants that produce methane gas as part of their process. Instead of burning the gas, which is a greenhouse gas, they could use it to run a generator to produce electricity to offset their costs. If I could piggyback onto their process and use some of that electricity to electrolyze the wastewater, we could cost-effectively produce hydrogen."

On the downside, McGie found that wastewater contains contaminants that can interfere with producing electricity for electrolysis and creating clean hydrogen. "As a fuel, hydrogen has to be combusted or used in a fuel cell. If you combust hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, you can burn dirtier hydrogen, but it produces nitrogen oxides that aren't good for the air. If you use it in a fuel cell, there are no pollutants, just water vapor. However, the hydrogen has to be 99.9 percent pure or it contaminates a very expensive membrane in the cell."

In his search for answers, McGie visited Humboldt State University where they are researching the process of electrolysis. "Unfortunately, hydrogen technology is so hot that everyone wants to protect their data. The researchers at Humboldt were willing to talk with me in general about the scope of their research and its limitations, but they weren't willing to share any data."

He also traveled to Sacramento, Calif., to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a collaborative research center where auto manufacturers, hydrogen producers and air quality regulatory agencies work together to advance hydrogen technology. "This was my second visit to the Fuel Cell Partnership and I went there this time to examine the structure of their organization to see how we could bring a project like it to Oregon."

The politics major is well aware that bringing hydrogen production to the state using wastewater treatment plants will require overcoming political as well as technological hurdles. He talked with officials at the Department of Energy and in the cities of Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, Albany and Portland. He was encouraged by the response. "The cities are interested in advancing technology and getting the Department of Environmental Quality off their backs. Several cities, especially Eugene and Corvallis, expressed keen interest in maximizing their ability to produce energy and reduce waste while offsetting their costs."

For now, McGie is working on a model that will demonstrate how his wastewater hydrogen idea might work. He's invited representatives from the state and from interested cities to his upcoming Carson presentation. He's hoping to work in hydrogen production when he graduates next spring. "One of the cities might be able to get a grant for a demonstration project. We could give it a couple of years and see what happens. California is working on a hydrogen economy; Western Canada already is building for this new economy. If we could produce hydrogen from wastewater here in Oregon, we'd be in the market to help extend the hydrogen highway. I want to build a pathway to show us how to get there."



06-15-2006