We describe and analyze the efficiency of a new solar-thermochemical reactor concept, which employs a moving packed bed of reactive particles produce of H2 or CO from solar energy and H2O or CO2. The packed bed reactor incorporates several features essential to achieving high efficiency: spatial separation of pressures, temperature, and reaction products in the reactor; solid–solid sensible heat recovery between reaction steps; continuous on-sun operation; and direct solar illumination of the working material. Our efficiency analysis includes material thermodynamics and a detailed accounting of energy losses, and demonstrates that vacuum pumping, made possible by the innovative pressure separation approach in our reactor, has a decisive efficiency advantage over inert gas sweeping. We show that in a fully developed system, using CeO2 as a reactive material, the conversion efficiency of solar energy into H2 and CO at the design point can exceed 30%. The reactor operational flexibility makes it suitable for a wide range of operating conditions, allowing for high efficiency on an annual average basis. The mixture of H2 and CO, known as synthesis gas, is not only usable as a fuel but is also a universal starting point for the production of synthetic fuels compatible with the existing energy infrastructure. This would make it possible to replace petroleum derivatives used in transportation in the U.S., by using less than 0.7% of the U.S. land area, a roughly two orders of magnitude improvement over mature biofuel approaches. In addition, the packed bed reactor design is flexible and can be adapted to new, better performing reactive materials.

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