Powered by the sun and hydrogenBy MICHAEL CHEANG
AT FIRST glance, the quaint little house outside the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia engineering faculty looks like any house. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
Called the Solar-Hydrogen Eco-house, it is the first in the world that is fully self-sustainable and runs entirely on hydrogen. The house is part of UKM’s new fuel cell and automotive research centre. It was jointly designed and developed by Prof Kamaruzzaman Sopian, director of UKM’s Advanced Engineering Centre, and architect Shah Jaafar.
“My initial idea was to have a small hut which was entirely fuelled by hydrogen,” said Kamaruzzaman, who has been researching solar power since 1985. “Then someone suggested that I build and design an actual house which implements the technology.”
After more than a year of designing and planning, the house was constructed to demonstrate the technology and architectural aspects to the public, as well as for further research into the viability of solar hydrogen technology application for a residential dwelling. Covering an area of 110sqm, the cost of building the house at almost RM250,000 was sponsored by the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, as it was then known.
The eco-house functions just like any home, except that it utilises hydrogen as a fuel to operate household appliances.
The hydrogen tank is located some distance from the house, and a small diameter pipe connects it to the utility gas line in the house. The gas is used as a domestic heater to provide hot water to a stove or burner, and operate a fuel cell to produce electricity for other appliances.
Solar hydrogen production system
The eco-house relies on a photovoltaic (PV) hydrogen production and storage system to power household appliances and a fuel cell that can convert the chemical energy into electricity.
“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere. I believe it is the fuel of the future,” said Kamaruzzaman. “People tend to equate hydrogen with hydrogen bombs, but in fact, it is really quite safe because it is so light that it disappears into the atmosphere as soon as it is released.”
The system uses solar power to convert ionised water into hydrogen through the process of electrolysis. Forty-two multi-crystal PV panels which can produce a total peak power of 5kWp are mounted on the rooftop. When sunlight hits the PV panels, the solar energy is converted into electricity, which is then used to run an electrolyser unit inside the house.
The electrolyser has a capacity of 0.54cu.m per hour of hydrogen production, and is used to transform electrical energy from the PV panels into chemical energy in the form of hydrogen.
It then electrolyses purified water supplied by a water purification system, producing hydrogen and oxygen which are then vented into the atmosphere. A hydrogen gas purifier then purifies the hydrogen before storing it in a 1,500-litre vertical-standing storage tank outside the house. This hydrogen is then used to run a fuel cell, cooking stove, and boiler for the absorption air-conditioning system.
The storage tank is equipped with a gas management system to ensure safety. Meanwhile, the PV system is interconnected to the utility power grid, with a reversible current flow and controlled by a 5kW solar PV inverter.
When the hydrogen tank is full and household appliances are not in use, the excess electricity will be injected back into the grid.
However, the solar-hydrogen production system is not the only unique aspect of the eco-house.
For Shah, designing the house proved to be a real challenge because he had to accommodate the professor’s technology and incorporate low energy architectural features such as shading, day-lighting, and at the same time, ensure that people would find the house pleasant enough to live in.
Shah drew inspiration from traditional Malay architecture, which he says possesses a bio-climatic environment and is in harmony with nature.
“The raised floor and the serambi (deep veranda) of the house are some of the traditional features I incorporated into the eco-house,” Shah explained. “I wanted to give traditional Malay architecture a modern and contemporary image, and at the same time reflect the technological and environmental aspects of the house.”
Low energy architectural features were also incorporated into the design. One such feature reduces the use of air-conditioning by manipulating natural ventilation effects. The principle relies on air temperature differences between the top and bottom of the building caused by solar radiation that heats the air.
The buoyancy of the warm air causes the air movement to rise vertically through the stack, resulting in a cool breeze running through the house.
Meanwhile, a combination of both classical day-lighting techniques (such as side-lighting and top-lighting) and innovative ideas (sloped light shelves and shading devices) were used, further reducing the usage of energy needed for lighting the house during the day.
In total, Shah took about three to four months to come up with the final design for the eco-house.
Making full use of the limited funds that were available to him was a big challenge, he said. Choosing the right site for the house was another, as they had to make sure that the house PV panels receive optimal solar energy throughout the day for maximum electricity production. They had to place the panels with a suitable tilting angle according to the latitude of the current location, and make sure no shadows will be cast upon them. “The house has to face south, as this is the best way to make sure it receives the optimum amount of sunlight,” said Shah.
While the eco-house is already an achievement in its own right, Kamaruzzaman clarified that the concept was still in the research stage and was not feasible for normal houses.
“In an actual residential dwelling, the noisy electrolysis unit would be placed outside the house unlike this one right now,” he said. “We are still running tests and in the near future plan to have a couple of our students live in the house for a period of time as an experiment.”
Nevertheless, Kamaruzzaman and Shah firmly believe that in the future, house such as their eco-house will be common everywhere.
“I hope in the future there will be whole communities of self-sustainable eco-houses,” said Kamaruzzaman. “Our eco-house is merely one step towards preparing for a cleaner environment and a future in which the world will no longer rely on fossil fuels."