Honors Gallery

Transfer of PNNL’s Solar Thermochemical Advanced Reactor System to STC

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

The Solar Thermochemical Advanced Reactor System (STARS) harnesses solar energy to power compact chemical reactors that produce liquids and gases for transportation, electricity generation, and other industrial processes.

The novel, compact system uses patented micro- and meso-channel heat-exchange technology to drive chemical reforming reactions within thin, engineered channels measured in millimeters of thickness. Each STARS unit captures sunlight with a mirrored parabolic dish that directs concentrated solar energy into a four-foot-long and two-foot-wide pod containing the reactor system. The concentrated sunlight heats up chemicals flowing through the channels, which hold a catalyst that helps drive the chemical reforming reactions. The process converts a record-setting 70 percent of the solar energy that hits the mirrored parabolic dish into chemical energy.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) encouraged the original inventors of the micro- and meso-channel platform to patent their inventions, resulting in a portfolio of over 200 U.S. and foreign patents. PNNL took advantage of an invitation to the Energy I-Corps program, where its development team learned to formulate and execute a business plan that resulted in the creation of the STARS Technology Corporation (STC), a PNNL spinoff founded in 2016 to commercialize STARS. Licenses granted under STC include 32 issued and pending patents, with options on 62 additional patents. PNNL and STC engaged with SoCalGas for two Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) to refine STARS, with the goal of providing a platform to showcase how the technology lowers carbon emissions in natural gas applications.

Due to STARS’ high efficiency, a small footprint is required to produce significant quantities of syngas. According to PNNL estimates, a single solar thermochemical plant with 200 solar concentrators on about 4 acres of land could produce 1,500 kilograms of hydrogen per day, which is sufficient to supply a busy fuel-cell vehicle filling station.

Each parabolic dish and the components of the solar thermochemical reaction system offer the potential benefits of production volume economies, allowing STARS to scale and achieve target hydrogen production costs under $2 per kilogram. STARS is also more efficient than other solar-based technologies, providing a potential new source for chemical and energy production that reduces carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent.

Solar technologies are among the leading tools that the United States and the world have embraced to secure a sustainable and renewable energy supply that combats global climate change.

STARS provides a viable path to increase the use of solar energy and reduce carbon emissions, thus furthering one of PNNL’s and the Department of Energy’s missions to advance more environmentally benign methods of supplying energy.

Contact: Bob Wegeng, (509) 727-7200, [email protected]