Hydrogen is an excellent cover gas for furnace brazing and electronic manufacture; it’s used as a carrier gas for gas chromatography or as a flame-detector gas, and it’s a generally interesting gas for chemical formation and alternate energy. If you are working in one of these fields you’ve got two maing options for sources of hydrogen: hydrogen cylinders and hydrogen generators with the maid difference being cost. Cylinder hydrogen is the more-commonly used for small demand applications, often aided by palladium membrane hydrogen purifiers if purity is an issue. Hydrogen generators are more generally used for larger -demand applications because they provide added safety, conveinience, and long-term savings. Having nothing better to do this evening, I thought I’d go through the benefits and drawbacks of each as applies to gas chromatography.
Point of use Cylinder Hydrogen Is Simple and Allows Easy Monitoring and Control. The smallest laboratories, those with one or two gas chromatographs, generally use a single hydrogen cylinder for each GC. This is called “point of use.” Each cylinder is typically belted to a wall and often fed into some type of hydrogen purifier (a getter or membrane). From there it supplies carrier and/or fuel gas to its application. When a cylinder is empty, the application is stopped, and the purifier is often stopped too (not necessary with membranes). A new cylinder switched in and, after a short break in period, the process is restarted. The biggest advantage here is simplicity; another advantage is the ease of pressure control and monitoring. Pressure is controlled by a regulator located right at the gas chromatograph. You can always check it and adjust it as needed. A main disadvantage is that the process has to stop whenever a cylinder needs switching.
Multi-cylinder Systems Provide Fewer interruptions in Gas Supply. Larger laboratories with multiple GCs tend to use multiple hydrogen cylinders with complex switchover systems, or hydrogen generators. When multiple cylinders are used, they are typically racked together and connected to a manifold and a purifier. Tanks are emptied in series so that there is no disruption. When each take empties, the hydrogen tank is switched automatically or manually to maintain the flow and pressure. One problem with this is that the pressure does not typically stay constant as the cylinders switch since each has its own regulator and all will be set slightly differently. As the hydrogen cylinders have separate regulators, there can be pressure changes during cylinder switches; and, as the packs are located further from the GC there is a tendency for the pressure to vary as the flow varies.
Another issue with cylinder packs is that purity can suffer as there is more room for leaks and degassing in the line. This can be solved by point-of-use purifiers installed in the hydrogen lines just prior to the GC or other application.
A final issue with cylinder packs is safety: with so many cylinders, there is a lot of potential for really disastrous leaks and fires: one leak can empty many cylinders and there is no likely room that is big enough to disperse that hydrogen quickly enough. The potential is made greater since the cylinder packs are often located at a distance from where the experiments (and people) are. Maintenence becomes an issue too since the manifolds and automatic switches become complicated quickly. The hydrogen is under great pressure, and even if fires are avoided, a pressure release can be deadly. Manifolds are complex enough that they generally require a trained technician to trouble-shoot any problems; it can also take an expert to handle multiple cylinder changes to minimize contamination and pressure variation.
A main advantage of hydrogen generators is that it avoids cylinder changes; it’s also somewhat safer and saves money for larger users. Changing cylinders can be difficult and time consuming as mentioned above; hydrogen bottles must be monitored to check that gas does not run out, and you’ve got to make sure that cylinders don’t fall (especially on you), and that leaks don’t arise, and that explosive hydrogen does not escape. Much of this is alleviated with a hydrogen generator. One can have a very large tank of water or methanol — far larger than any reasonably safe gas tank, so running out is less of a problem. In some systems, the water can come from municipal pipes so there is almost no chance of running out.
Safety is provided by limiting the output of the generator to the amount the room will vent. Thus, a room with 100 ft3 of air circulation can host a hydrogen generator of up to 4.5 scfh output (about 2 slpm) with no fear of reaching explosive limits. Further, unlike cylinders, most hydrogen generators can be fitted with alarm features to alert the user to operating problems, and most have automatic shut down capabilities that trigger if the unit malfunctions. All of these factors contribute greatly to the overall safety of in the lab.
Another advantage is that methanol and water are a lot cheaper than hydrogen and there is no switchover system, cylinder rental, and less manpower need (cylinder rental cost is often greater than the cost of gas). The first cost of the generator is typically on the order of $10,000, similar to the cost of a manifold switchover system and a hydrogen purifier.
The Source Options for High purity hydrogen generators are electrolysis and methanol reformer generators. These are virtually the only continuous use hydrogen generators. They are both available in outputs from 150 ccm to 50 slpm, i.e. enough to supply single or multiple GC’s (also used for modest-sized braze furnaces, IC tool production, and laboratory-scale fuel cell testing). All hydrogen generators provide continuous hydrogen outputs as feed water or methanol is provided upstream of the hydrogen output, and they all offer safety advantages. They all take less space than the cylinders and avoid the leaks and impurity spikes that arise when cylinders are switched.
In Electrolytic Hydrogen generators Purified water, either purchased separately, or purified on-site is mixed with an electrolyte, generally KOH, and converted to hydrogen and oxygen by the electrolytic reaction H2O –> H2 + ½ O2. As the hydrogen produced is generally “wet”, containing water vapor, the hydrogen is then purified by use of a desiccant, or by passage through a metal membrane purifier. Desiccants are cheaper, but the gas is at best 99.9% pure, good enough to feed FIDs, but not good enough to be used as a carrier gas, or for chemical production. Over time desiccants wear out; they require constant monitoring and changing as they become filled with water vapor. Often electrolytic hydrogen generators also require the addition of a caustic electrolyte solution as caustic can leak out, or leave by corrosion mechanisms.
In Reformer-based hydrogen generators a methanol-water mix is pumped to about 300 psi and heated to about 350 °C. It is then sent over a catalyst where it is converted to a hydrogen-containing gas-mix by the reaction CH3OH + H2O –> 3H2 + CO2. Pure hydrogen is extracted from the gas mix by passing it through a membrane, either within the reactor (a membrane reactor), or by use of a membrane purifier external to the reactor.
Both systems provide continuous gas supply of high purity gas. The need to change and store cylinders is eliminated, saving time and cost. One adds water or methanol-water as needed, and hydrogen is produced as long as there is electricity in the lab. Eliminating cylinder changeouts reduces downtime and minimizes the potential for air contamination.
Consistent gas purity is enhanced further because hydrogen generators often contain metal membranes. Hydrogen is delivered at 99.9999% purity, and remains constant over time. This consistent purity provides reliability for the GC system. Electrolysis systems with only a desiccant to remove water vapor from the hydrogen should be used only where high hydrogen purity less important than high hydrogen pressure. Even with a fresh cartridge, desiccant-purified gas never exceeds 99.9% and this purity decreases with time as the desiccant wears out; if purity is an issue add a membrane purifier, or use a methanol reformer.
Single cylinders are quite compact; where many cylinders would be needed space saving favors use of a generator. The relatively small size of hydrogen generators allows them to be conveniently located on the lab bench; they consume a lot of valuable lab and storage space than multiple cylinders. Related to space savings is zoning. Once you have many cylinders, you begin to run into zoning issues regarding how close your laboratory can be to bus stops, churches, and children. Zoning can limit distances to 500 feet, or 1/10 mile.
Short term cost savings favor cylinders; long term and large outputs favor generators. Hydrogen in cylinders is fairly expensive, the more so when cylinder rental is included. In Detroit, where we are, hydrogen costs about $70 each cylinder low low-purity gas, or $200 for high purity gas. Each cylinder contains 135 scf of gas. If you use 1/10 cylinder per day, you will find you’re spending about $7,300 per year on hydrogen gas, with another $1000 spent on cylinder rental and delivery. This is about the cost of a comparable hydrogen generator plus the water or methanol and electricity run it. If you use significantly less hydrogen you save money with cylinders, if you use more there is significant savings with a generator.
Most hydrogen generators have delivery pressure limitations compared to cylinders. Cylinders have no problem supplying hydrogen at 200 psi or greater pressures. By contrast, generators are limited to only the 60-150 psig range only. This pressure limitation is not likely to be a problem, even for GCs that need higher pressure gas or when the generator must be located far from the instruments, but you have to be aware of the issue when buying the generator. Electrolysis systems that use caustic provide the highest pressures, but they tend to be the most expensive, and least safe as the operate hot and caustic can drip out. Fuel cell generators and reformers provide lower pressure gas (90 psi maximum, typically), but they are safer. In general generators should be located close to the instruments to minimize supply line pressure drop. If necessary it can pay to use cylinders and generators or several generators to provide a range of delivery pressures and a shorter distance between the hydrogen generator and the application.
Click here for the prices of REB Research hydrogen generators. By comparison, I’ve attached prices for electrolysis-based hydrogen generators here (it’s 2007 data; please check the company yourself for current prices). Finally, the price of membrane purifiers is listed here.
Maintenance required for optimal performance. Often electrolytic hydrogen generators require the addition of a caustic electrolyte solution; desiccant purified gas will require the monitoring and changing of desiccant cartridges to remove residual moisture from the hydrogen. Palladium membrane purifiers systems, and reformer systems need replacement thermocouples and heaters every few years. Understanding the required operating and maintenance procedures is an important part of making an informed decision.
Cylinder hydrogen supplies are the simplest sources for labs but present a safety, cost, and handling concerns, particularly associated with cylinder change-outs. Generators tend to be more up-front expensive than cylinders but offer safety benefits as well as benefits of continuous supply and consistent purity. They are particularly attractive alternative for larger labs where large hydrogen supply can present larger safety risks, and larger operating costs.