Hydrogen technology, made in Greece

Coal and oil have been powering our industrialized way of life for over two centuries now. In recent years, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels, the environmental impact of our modern existence has precipitated research into cleaner, alternative fuels. However, the finite nature of fossil fuels means that in the not-too-distant future we will start running out of our major energy resources, which makes the search for a substitute not just an environmental issue but an existential one as well.

One alternative that is getting ever more attention is hydrogen. As a fuel, unlike coal or oil, hydrogen needs to be produced (which, like electricity, makes it an energy carrier not an energy source). It can either be burned, converting its chemical energy into mechanical, in a combustion engine, similar to petrol or gas, or combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to cause a reaction and produce electricity. From an environmental point of view, hydrogen is ideal since when it burns it produces heat and water.

Although there are significant obstacles to the large-scale, widespread use of hydrogen power, its potential is such that it is gaining ground over other alternatives such as biofuels. In fact, the biggest barrier to the hydrogen economy a term referring to the replacement of fossil fuels with hydrogen is the cost of the infrastructure needed (fueling stations, production plants etc). There are numerous companies, including most major car manufacturers, around the world involved in the research of hydrogen and its applications. Surprisingly, there is a Greek company that is not only involved in the research but also boasts some impressive products. Located in Athens, Tropical started manufacturing air-conditioning units for vehicles back in the mid-1970s.

Since 2000 the company has been involved in research and development in the field of renewable energy and hydrogen. Today the company has a large number of innovative products including fuel cell systems (electric generators powered by hydrogen fuel cells) and various hydrogen-powered vehicles. George Kaplanis is head of the hydrogen and renewable energy department and talks about Tropical?s projects, the industry in general, as well as Greece?s prospects and particularities.

Tropical is involved in a number of projects concerned with hydrogen technologies, such as the production of hydrogen-powered vehicles, that have received quite a bit of attention both in Greece and abroad.

Indeed, we are involved in a number of projects that are at various stages. A hydrogen bus project initially began in Greece, but like many projects in this country it fell through and the reason it fell through was because it was a project being realized in Greece. However, there has been a great deal of interest for our minibus and other products from Italy. Rome wants to use renewable energy, including hydrogen, to cover a substantial part of its power needs. Jeremy Rifkin, who is also an energy adviser to Prime Minister George Papandreou, is heading the project. His proposal to the mayor of Rome, which aims at a combination of various renewable energies, includes our company. We will be in charge of producing a hydrogen-powered bus as well as two- and four-seater vehicles and a hydrogen fueling station. The project is still in the planning stages, so there are no exact details yet. What is significant for us is that, although there are numerous companies involved in hydrogen research and applications, Tropical was chosen for vehicle production and setting up the hydrogen station.

Are consumers interested in your hydrogen products?

It?s mainly universities and research institutes that are interested in our products. As far as consumers are concerned, our products are at a pre-commercial stage which means the cost per unit is still quite high. Presently there are discussions under way with investors to set up a limited production of about 50 hydrogen power generators per year for 2011, which will bring down the cost per unit significantly. Even so, it will still be bought by people for its silent and environmentally friendly operation rather than saving money. In order for our units to be cost-competitive with conventional fossil fuel generators, we need to reach a production of over 1,000 units per year. The technology is available for such products to be commercially viable, it?s just a matter of finding the necessary investment capital to achieve a production line with sufficient numbers of products per year. In other words, it?s a simple case of economies of scale. The same applies to hydrogen fuel. Today hydrogen production is limited since there is a limited demand for hydrogen fuel.

How it?s made

How is hydrogen produced?

There are several environmentally friendly ways of producing hydrogen. The most established method is via electrolysis, where hydrogen is produced using water and electricity. If this is done using renewable sources of energy (solar, wind) then the cost is low. For example, when producing electricity via solar power, the Public Power Corporation (PPC) will buy a certain amount but never your entire production, what is not sold to the power company can be converted into hydrogen. Other methods include fermentative hydrogen production and thermolysis; these techniques are still fairly new but initial results are very encouraging. However, in such cases we are talking about decentralized hydrogen production, not individuals producing their own hydrogen. For example, an installation in Attica could be set up using solar panels to manufacture hydrogen at high temperatures without the need for electricity, just water and heat. Research in this field has been pioneered by Dr Athanasios G. Konstandopoulos and such a plant is in the final stages of construction in Spain. If this Spanish pilot program is successful, then we are talking about large-scale hydrogen production without electricity simply by using heat from the sun.

Does that mean we are close to replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen, the so-called hydrogen economy?

It?s still early yet. If we take the car industry as an example, in recent years there has been a lot of hype about electric cars, something that just a few years ago nobody or at least very few people was involved with. Indeed, there was quite a lot more time and money spent by auto companies researching the application of hydrogen. In fact, the electric car is a forerunner of the hydrogen car, in the same way that the hybrid car was the forerunner for the electric car. Moving from a hybrid (petrol engine + electric engine) to an electric car is a natural evolution given that traditional batteries are a mature technology. Of course there is room for improvement, particularly in regard to range and charging time. However, once electric cars are established, then the next natural step is the hydrogen car. It?s a simple matter of replacing the conventional batteries of an electric car with hydrogen fuel cells or hydrogen fuel tanks. Hydrogen, whether in fuel form or via a fuel cell produces electricity, and can, like a lithium battery, feed an electric power plant. Today?s electric cars are preparing the ground for the application of hydrogen technology in the automotive industry. However I expect the initial hydrogen cars will be a form of hybrid using fuel cells as well as conventional batteries. Given that cars start and stop a lot, this creates power fluctuations and fuel cells do not cope well with such peaks in power, but this can be overcome by the use of conventional batteries or capacitors. But we are talking about a very small part of the overall power production. In much the same way that cars today have a battery to provide power for ignition, overall this battery provides a very small part of the power used by the car.

Why not here?

Given that Greece is renowned for its weather, particularly its clear skies, does this make it an ideal place to invest in renewable energies?

Greece is ideally situated and has the climate to allow it to dominate the production of electricity using renewable means, at least in Europe. The fact that we have not done so yet is due to the lack of political will as well as the so-called ?Greek phenomenon,? where investors are interested in fast, short-term returns. If investments in renewable energies were made with a five- to seven-year time line, as is the case abroad, then we would probably be in a better position today as far as our renewable energy output is concerned. The bureaucratic complexities in Greece are also a problem I would say the second-biggest obstacle after the lack of long-term investments. However, there have been some positive steps recently, such as new legislature simplifying the installation process of small-scale photovoltaic plants. Large-scale installations are a different story though, since we are dealing with monopolies and other such tribulations that are so common in Greece and we really ought to find a way to finally overcome them. Whether it?s a sound business investment or not, I cannot say with certainty. Presently we have the highest return in the world. Which means the room for profit is substantial. This is based on present power consumption and climate conditions. However no one can guarantee future climate conditions. For example, longer periods of cloud cover or weather conditions requiring more frequent cleaning and maintenance of the solar panels will affect output and thus profits. So, given that a small installation costs 50,000 euros, I honestly can?t say with any certainty that it would be more profitable than putting your money in the bank for 20 years. Given the present conditions, it is, but it is an investment that only time will tell if it was economically worthwhile. However, apart from the monetary dimension, there is also the environmental question of decreasing C02 production and our carbon footprint. And for me this is the most important consideration.