Hydrogen seen as a fuel of the future

At the Skaramangas shipyards, a new Greek navy submarine is under construction – one designed to run on hydrogen fuel. Research into hydrogen as fuel will be funded by the European Union to the tune of 2.8 billion euros over the next three years, as opposed to a mere 300-400 million in the last three. The transport of hydrogen through natural gas pipelines is the subject of a European program, aiming to adapt specifications for the next generation of pipes. Greece’s Public Gas Corporation (DEPA) is participating. Are these scenarios for a remote future or is the age of hydrogen closer than we think? Iceland, for one, has already scheduled to switch to a wholly hydrogen economy by 2010. Over 200 Greek researchers, university lecturers, technocrats and company executives, both from the state and private sector, who gathered at the recent First National Conference of Hydrogen Technologies felt a sense of urgency. Theirs might be the enthusiasm – and the optimism – of pioneers. But major original ideas were floated that the government needs to consider with all seriousness. One of these is a pilot program to transform a Greek island (Milos, by preference, due to the availability of geothermal, wind and solar energy) into a self-sustaining system powered entirely by hydrogen. It would become a «Greek Iceland,» a window onto the planet’s energy future. But according to the Greek Hydrogen Society (ELETY), while Greek researchers are high up on the rungs of scientific achievement, the Greek government, until recently, treated them like aliens when they spoke of the need to take immediate measures to usher in the new era. Of course, the hydrogen revolution will not happen without conflict. Huge multinationals are attempting to control its direction and pace. The question for Greece is whether it will have to work to keep up with the hydrogen economy or become an energy exporter, supported by an abundance of renewable energy sources. Hydrogen is considered the energy source of the future, but its utilization presents a number of difficulties. At the present juncture, a scientific race is under way to solve those problems. Many Greek scientists living and working in Greece are playing an active role. The First National Conference of Hydrogen Technologies, organized jointly by ELETY, the Department of Chemistry of the University of Athens, and the General Secretariat of Research and Technology gave an update of progress. Kathimerini spoke to Christiana Mitsopoulou, president of ELETY and assistant professor at the Department of Chemistry, about the struggle for hydrogen usage. What hydrogen research programs are being carried out in Greece today? There are programs on all levels, on the production of hydrogen through solar, wind, geothermal or photochemical power, for a start. [Xenophon] Verykios’s team at Patras [University, Dept. of Chemical Engineering] is working on fuel cells producing hydrogen from ethanol. [Professor Iacovos] Vasallos at Thessaloniki [University, Dept. of Chemical Engineering] is concentrating on biomass hydrogen production, and [Dr Constantine] Vagenas of Patras [University, the Dept. of Chemical Engineering] has developed a pioneering fuel cell with three electrodes, which has not been widely published. Even the European program to produce hydrogen airplane fuel (the so-called cryoplane) has a Greek contributor, [Christos] Zerefos [Thessaloniki University, Dept. of Physics]. Research is also being carried out on hydrogen storage, with zeolites [microporous crystalline solids with well-defined structures]; the Argyrovarytinis company has zeolite mineral ores. Thus there is practical interest. The Center for Renewable Energy Sources (KAPE) has undertaken a special program for hydrogen production, using wind-generated power and storing it in tanks made from metallic hybrids by the Rokkas company, in collaboration with a specialist Cypriot company. There are also programs focusing on risk prevention in case of accidents with hydrogen and which have developed software that closely simulates accidents that have actually happened. It is especially significant that in Hong Kong, where hydrogen-fueled buses will soon be in circulation, the study on dealing with possible accidents was assigned to a Greek research team. We hear that there are huge obstacles to the introduction of hydrogen. How close is the new era? In my opinion, there are not so many obstacles as there are conflicting viewpoints. Some want to go faster, and others more slowly. Some countries are already much further ahead. Germany, for example, has been investing hugely in hydrogen for the last 30 years, with the result that today there are a number of companies selling fuel cells and electrolytes. It’s not true that we will have replaced our fuel by 2050; I think it could happen much sooner. What about the problem of cost? As soon as hydrogen enters the market dynamically, the cost will drop significantly due to production on an industrial scale. In the long term, hydrogen will be a major form of power, along with electricity. In the medium term, it will be a means of storing surplus energy from renewable energy sources. How will hydrogen be transported? It can be transported in lots of different ways, even through natural gas pipelines. In fact, DEPA is participating in a European program which is studying the consequences of transporting hydrogen (either mixed in with natural gas or in a pure form) so that the right pipes can be laid. Hydrogen can also be transported by ship. In any case, there are considerable shipments of hydrogen taking place even today. Things are not as black as they are being painted; I feel the fears being aired are exaggerated. Many of them were deliberately spread in the previous decades so that certain interests could push oil and nuclear power. Are the oil companies still trying to hold back the process? There certainly are big interests trying to delay developments, but I wouldn’t say they are found in the oil companies. They are more au fait with the current state of affairs than we are. The Saudis, for instance, were first to place huge mirrors in the desert to electrolyze and produce hydrogen. Oil companies are constantly being forced to slash polluting emissions from benzine and petrol. To do this, they purify the petrol with hydrogen. That is, they produce hydrogen at refineries and refine the petrol with it. Today, Motor Oil produces, daily, enough hydrogen to power 100,000 cars. Indeed, the more emission thresholds are lowered, the more the sulfur content in fuel oil increases, and the more hydrogen amounts have to be increased. Today’s fuel prices may be in the oil companies’ interest, but as soon as they see people switching to hydrogen, they will be the first to produce it. Yes, but they produce it from fuel, which means the problem of pollution is not resolved. Of course, that is a problem. Some people want to develop nuclear power to produce hydrogen. We insist on renewable sources of energy in the long term. This is a crucial issue for Greece. The question is whether we will switch to producing hydrogen via natural gas, with minor economic and environmental benefits, or whether we will produce it using renewable energy sources, which are abundant in this country. Otherwise, we will resort to imports again, of a new kind of fuel this time. Instead, we could even be exporting hydrogen-generated energy at some point in the future.