He believes Oregon’s energy future lies in producing limitless hydrogen from what is now river-polluting wastewater.
McGie, who double majored in politics and environmental science, 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 fuel through electrolysis,” he explains, “but instead of using subsurface water, I want to use wastewater.”
As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, using wastewater, a potential polluter, has a number of benefits. “Wastewater has a theoretical zero cost for producing energy,” McGie says. “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 only two methods for producing hydrogen. One employs a reformation process using natural gas or another non-renewable petroleum product, while the second uses electrolysis for molecule separation. In electrolysis, low-voltage electricity is passed through water, separating the water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. “The reformation process produces a lot of carbon dioxide that contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming,” McGie says. “Electrolysis is the green way to go because there are no residual pollutants.”
Test components of an electrolyzer that breaks water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.
A $3,000 Carson Grant gave McGie the funding he needed to explore his wastewater-hydrogen idea further. “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 exciting potential—and vexing limitations.
The upside: “Wastewater treatment plants, especially larger urban facilities, are cogeneration plants that produce methane gas as part of their process,” McGie explains. “Instead of burning the gas, which contributes to the greenhouse effect, 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.”
The downside: McGie found that wastewater contains contaminants that can interfere with producing electricity 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,” he continues, “there are no pollutants, just water vapor, but the hydrogen has to be 99.9 percent pure or it contaminates a very expensive membrane in the fuel cell.” In his search for solutions, McGie visited Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., 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.”
McGie also traveled to Sacramento, Calif., to the California Fuel Cell Project, a collaborative research center where auto manufacturers, hydrogen producers and air quality regulatory agencies work together to advance hydrogen technology. On his second visit there, he says, “I went to examine the structure of their organization to see how we could bring a project like it to Oregon.”
McGie is well aware that bringing hydrogen prodution to the state using wastewater treatment plants will require overcoming both political and technological hurdles. He has talked with officials at the Department of Energy and with the cities of Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, Albany and Portland, and was encouraged by the response he received. “The cities are interested in advancing technology and getting the Department of Environmental Quality off their backs,” McGie says. “Several cities, especially Eugene and Corvallis, expressed keen interest in maximizing their ability to produce energy and reduce waste while offsetting their costs.”
Flame apparatus in foreground is flaring excess methane. Large tank in background is digester tank that breaks down solids and, as a byproduct, produces methane. the methane is burned by the stirling engine.
In the meantime, McGie is working on a model that will demonstrate how his wastewater-hydrogen idea might work. He invited representatives from the state and interested cities to his Carson presentation in April. And he’s hoping to work in hydrogen production after graduation. “One of the cities might be able to get a grant for a demonstration project. We could give it a couple of years to see what happens,” he says. “California is working on a hydrogen economy. Western Canada is already 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 the onramp to get us there.”