Rocket engine testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center (photo courtesy of NASA)

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), together with Sierra Lobo Inc., has demonstrated the recovery of high-purity helium from hydrogen/helium mixtures produced at rocket engine testing sites using proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses a large amount of helium gas—about a million cubic feet per launch to purge hydrogen from their fuel lines. Helium gas, contaminated with hydrogen, is expensive and energy-intensive to purify and recover. Capitalizing on expertise at HNEI, Sierra Lobo technologists challenged the team to use proven fuel cell technology to develop an efficient recycling process for helium.

HNEI optimized proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell technology to electrochemically separate the two gases,” explained Richard Rocheleau, HNEI’s director. Separation was achieved by applying electrical energy to the fuel cell, rather than using it to produce energy.

Helium reclamation system (photo courtesy of Sierra Lobo)

“Fuel cell technology is an excellent choice for separating the helium from hydrogen-helium mixtures,” said Mike Angelo, HNEI project manager. “The fuel cell uses a catalytic reaction and membrane transport to remove the hydrogen, allowing for the efficient recovery of very high purity helium.”

In laboratory experiments, HNEI demonstrated that contaminated gas streams with up to 50 percent hydrogen can be refined to produce 99.995 percent pure helium. A pilot-scale Helium Reclamation System was designed and built by Sierra Lobo and its performance was validated on site at the NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

“Sierra Lobo combines advanced engineering services with developing, manufacturing and marketing new and enhanced products and processes for the aerospace, transportation and energy industries,” said Sierra Lobo President and CEO George Satornino. “This project gave us the perfect opportunity to leverage our engineering know-how with HNEI’s fuel cell expertise to develop a unique prototype turnkey system, tailored to NASA’s needs.”

Read the UH Mānoa news release for more information.