Model of a Rotary Kiln Solar Reactor for the Reduction of Cobalt Oxide Particles in a Two-step, Hybrid Thermochemical Water Splitting Cycle

Faculty Sponsor

Luke Venstrom




Mechanical Engineering

Presentation Type

Poster Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-4-2017


Thermochemical water splitting cycles remain a promising approach to produce hydrogen from water using concentrated sunlight, due to their high theoretical solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency. One promising cycle is a hybrid cycle based on cobalt oxide. Hydrogen is produced in two chemical steps. In one step, concentrated sunlight is used to reduce cobalt oxide from Co3O4 to CoO near 1000 °C. In the second step, the CoO is integrated into the anode of an electrolysis cell and oxidized back to Co3O4 during the electrolysis of water near room temperature to produce hydrogen. The Co3O4 is recycled, and a fraction of the hydrogen produced is fed to a fuel cell in order to provide the small electrical input for electrolysis, such that the net effect of the cycle is the splitting of water using concentrated sunlight. The ideal solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency is 38%. One advantage of this approach is that the fuel production step is decoupled from the solar step and proceeds at room temperature; it can be carried out where water is readily available. The cycle brings the sun to the water rather than the water to the sun.

At Valparaiso University, we have been developing a rotary kiln solar reactor for the reduction of Co3O4 particles to CoO. The defining feature of this reactor is its ability to disperse the Co3O4 particles into a “cloud” spread over the volume of the reactor. The hypothesis is that this cloud enhances the direct absorption and distribution of the concentrated solar input to reaction sites, and thereby increases the thermal efficiency of the reactor. To determine the impact of the cloud of Co3O4 particles on reactor performance, we developed a numerical model that couples the radiative and non-radiative heat transfer within the cloud to the cobalt oxide reduction kinetics in order to calculate the reactor temperature and the rate of reduction of Co3O4. Radiation is simulated using Monte Carlo ray tracing, and the reduction kinetics follow the shrinking core model. Several cases of particle motion were investigated, including plug flow and mixed flow. In this presentation, we show the results of the modeling effort. Reactor thermal efficiency, which is defined as the fraction of solar energy used to drive the reduction reaction, is discussed as a function of the feed rate of Co3O4, the solar power, and the volume fraction of Co3O4 in the cloud.

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