Hydrogen and fuel cell technology will play a major role in the world of the new green energy system. But to take full advantage of the potential of these fuel cells, the system needs to be further optimized.
A fuel cell is a system that converts chemical energy into electricity and heat. In electric fuel cell vehicles, the cell facilitates a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen (the energy carrier), resulting in electric current and water. At the heart of these electrochemical systems, porous gas diffusion electrodes (GDEs) play a crucial role. Their design determines performance, durability and cost. At Heratec, an entrepreneurial project from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU / e), they are working on a groundbreaking technology to optimize these electrodes.
During her PhD at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, Antoni Forner Cuenca lays the scientific foundation for the technology. He has worked as an assistant professor at TU / e since 2019. The Spaniard loves his work as a scientist and teacher, but also finds it important to translate knowledge from the laboratory into practice. Now is the time to do something about it, because there is a lot of interest in hydrogen technologies. So last year he co-founded Heratec with colleague Rik van Gorp. “We are not yet a company, but we are investigating the possibilities of becoming one. I hope that in a year we will be officially a start-up. ”
Flood with heavy use
“The great thing about a fuel cell is that you put air and hydrogen in it, and electricity comes out. The condition is that both liquid and gas phases can coexist. In today’s fuel cells, it is difficult to extract the water produced in the cell. So when used intensively, the system is flooded, so to speak. Then there is no more room for the gas. We are trying to create a kind of motorway where we let the water and the gas flow through the fuel cell separately from each other, ”explains Forner Cuenca.
Water-repellent and water-absorbing ‘highways’
At Heratec, they modify the chemical properties of the fuel cell to create hydrophilic (water-absorbing) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) channels. These channels are about as thin as a hair. In this way, researchers can, on a very small scale, influence which parts are and will not be wetted.
Heratec uses the so-called ‘electron radiation inoculation’ technology to create these channels in the material. How to use the hydrophobic channels. “We then dip the material in a hydrophilic solution to create the ‘highways’ that absorb water. That way, the chemical reaction can take place efficiently and a fuel cell can function more intensively and longer.”
Co-founder Rik van Gorp was recently named one of the ten fellows in the new, National Faculty of Impact program. This grant enables him to work full time on making technical innovation a successful company with social impact.
If all goes according to plan, a production line will be established in five years and the first fuel cell cars with Heratec’s innovation will be on the way. For it to get there, the next two years will be dominated by economies of scale, Van Gorp says. “We will continue to develop our fuel cells from 1 cm² to 25 cm² and ultimately 100 cm². Then we are at a dimension relevant to the industry. It is very important that we work closely with parties from the hydrogen fuel cell industry, so we can tailor our technology to their wishes. ”
Furthermore, the industrial process of manufacturing a GDE complex; it consists of fifteen shaping and heating steps. It is therefore crucial that Heratec can work with suppliers of GDEs to implement the new coating technology on a large scale.
Heratec works closely with companies. There is a general tendency for universities to collaborate more intensively with industry. A good thing, says Forner Cuenca. “However, it is also crucial that there is space and other resources left for the universities to do basic research. If we do not continue to do so, you will lose the disruptive, groundbreaking ideas. Blue sky research, where both practical and economic goals are not directly present, is very important. That’s how Heratec was once created. “