Local scientific pioneers win recognition

When researchers announced that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future, providing a cheap, clean and decentralized energy source whose only waste product was clean water, some observers pointed to the unwieldy and (by today’s standards) expensive fuel cells powered by hydrogen at the time. It is no easy undertaking. These cells operate somewhat in the manner of an energy «sandwich.» Every fuel cell consists of two electrodes with a polymer membrane in the middle, acting as an electrolytic barrier. By means of a chemical reaction, the electrons in the hydrogen are forced to move outward, thereby producing electrical energy. As simple as this might seem, the system is not devoid of complicated technical problems. For one thing, hydrogen does not exist independently in nature. Then there is the problem of finding new materials that will be both economical and effective in order to bring costs down. Among the thousands of scientists around the world struggling with these questions are those at the Patras Research Institute and a Greek-based company, Lion Energy, which is using hydrogen to produce energy. European recognition Scientists at Patras’s Research Institute of Chemical Engineering and Chemical High Temperature Procedures have been working with new materials that make fuel cells operate more efficiently, such as polymer membranes and new electrodes. In addition they are involved in the production of pure hydrogen from biomass and the electro-mechanical separation of water. Kathimerini spoke to G. Voyiatzis, T. Ioannidis, I. Kallitsis, Christos Kontoyiannis and S. Neofytidis from the research group who, along with their associates, have been running three programs and are about to begin another in July, making the institute one of the most active organizations carrying out hydrogen research in Europe. It began in 1998, when the institute took part in the first European attempt to develop polymer membranes with new qualities. The results, and the contribution of the Greek team, were so positive that the institute was included in the next two European programs. One of these, which it is in fact coordinating, is one of the largest research projects funded by the European Union, with the Greek participation budgeted at 1.2 million euros. In its first research program, the group worked at developing a new polymer membrane that would operate efficiently at high temperatures. «We tried to have a mixture of two polymers with complementary qualities,» said Dr Voyiatzis. «These membranes were tested by our associates abroad and proved to be quite capable of being included in high-temperature fuel cells,» he said. Voyiatzis said the aim of one of the next research programs, now in its early stages, is to find new polymer materials and to further adapt those already developed to have thinner but stronger membranes. Neofytidis said that new materials are also being sought for the electrodes, which at the moment are based on platinum, a very expensive alternative. The development of efficient fuel cells with polymer membranes that can operate at temperatures of 150-180C (302-356F), something which is possible with the new membranes invented by the institute, has opened up the possibility for their use in automobiles. As these cells start up almost immediately, they do not need warming up. Ioannidis showed us another program in which the institute has been taking part since January 2002, aimed at producing pure oxygen from biomass through a process known as aeration. Another program, partly funded by the General Secretariat for Research and Technology, aims to clean hydrogen of any traces of carbon monoxide by means of a catalyst. According to the researchers, the institute is taking part in an application for an international patent for the catalyst being developed. Yet another program, to begin next month with the cooperation of other Balkan foundations, aims to advance the separation of water to produce hydrogen by electrochemical means. Crete power plant A Greek-based company is ready to invest in a pioneering project to set up a solar power plant using hydrogen. High-tech solar energy collectors store the energy and convert it into thermal and then electrical energy. The surplus energy collected in the hours of brightest sunlight will not be lost but stored as hydrogen to be used at times of insufficient sunlight, retrieved by means of a chemical reaction. Although solar energy has been exploited for about 40 years, Lion Energy has made several crucial improvements. According to Costas Liapis, president and managing director, they have managed to obtain 65 percent efficiency from the solar collectors, almost twice the usual amount. But it is the storing of energy in hydrogen that is so innovative. Liapis said that not one drop of conventional fuel is required to operate it. Hydrogen is obtained from water, separated with the aid of electrolytes and solar energy. The innovations introduced by Lion Energy in the efficiency of the collectors and the use of hydrogen are the result of experience by scientists from the former USSR and Romania, some of whom participated in the MIR space station energy program. More than 10 years of scientific work and at least $13-14 million in outlay for research were required. Lion’s solar energy collectors are not made of glass but of polymers. Most importantly, the company’s researchers managed to achieve the separation of water at very low temperatures (10-32C or 50-90F) thanks to an appropriate catalyst. This reduces the loss of energy as well as costs, since materials cost more when they have to withstand high levels of heat. At the same time, at such low temperatures, the unit can easily make use of a geothermal source. The size of the hydrogen storage units depends on the number of sunny days in the area. The hydrogen is stored in units with a second layer of material that will prevent leakage. Hydrogen is of very light weight, one of the greatest difficulties in these types of technologies. Lion claims it has found the solution. Liapis says Lion has already set up a small power plant (2KW) in Los Angeles that works perfectly and acts as a laboratory. The next goal is to establish a 10MW station in Greece. A proposal for Crete has been made (with the agreement of the local community). Lion is waiting for approval from the relevant authorities. «We think it unlikely that we won’t get the license, as this is an investment in an innovation that demands no electricity from the Public Power Corporation,» said Liapis. «We have managed to produce thermal energy from hydrogen but without burning it. We don’t even need any fuel. Our reactor and converter work on their own, with chemical reactions. Wind farms and photovoltaic systems at some point need energy from the grid. We will be giving it out, 24 hours a day,» he added.