The University of Technology Jamaica (UTech) is leading an ambitious project that harnesses energy from water and sunlight to slash the US$30-million (J$2.7b) import bill for cooking gas.
It's the largest project of its kind in Jamaica worth €495,000 (J$58.4 m) - mostly funded by the European Union (EU).
"This is the first of its nature in Jamaica," said energy minister Philip Paulwell who addressed experts at the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston yesterday at the project launch. "We can see immediately that it could contribute to significantly reducing the import bill."
The project unofficially started in August but had its official launch on Thursday.
The aim is to substitute traditional gas with hydrogen in homes. Essentially, a solar powered device will separate hydrogen from water. The separated gas would be stored and bottled in cylinders for sale to consumers. The technical process - which also reflects the project title - involves "the application of solar-powered polymer electrolyte membrane electrolysers for the sustainable production of hydrogen gas as fuel for domestic cooking".
Currently four-fifths of Jamaican households utilise liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking, according to the Population and Housing Census 2011 published by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica this week.
The hydrogen project team comprises engineers and scientists from UTech; Brunel University in UK; University of West Indies; Bureau of Standards Jamaica; and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining.
The project which will run for three years aims to carry the science to commercial viability. The lead investigator, Dr Earle Wilson, also attached to the Faculty of Engineering and Computing, UTech, told Sunday Gleaner that it was too early to estimate the cost savings to consumers.
Currently, the primary focus is on safety, he said. As such, the team will add colour and scent to the invisible hydrogen flame; devise a gas flame blow-back prevention to counter leakage; and produce a modern gas-storage devise.
After his presentation he told Sunday Gleaner that at worst, the planned storage device would not explode but rather shred like a tyre.
Some 85 per cent of the project will be financed by the European Union (EU) grant.
"There are some areas which need to be perfected like reducing the energy cost of splitting the atoms in the water to produce the hydrogen, hence the use of optimised solar panels," stated Ruth Potopsingh, project manager, also attached to the School of Graduate Studies, Research & Entrepreneurship at UTech.
The project brief indicates that hydrogen would be produced without creating harmful carbon dioxide which usually emanates utilising the most common method - steam reforming natural gas.
"The research initiative has strong potential for commercialisation of the results. As a key strategy for reducing unemployment and stimulating economic growth," she concluded.