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The Warsaw Voice » Other » July 9, 2008
Opinion
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Toward a Hydrogen-Based Economy
July 9, 2008   
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Janina Molenda, a professor at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow and president of the Polish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, talks to Jacek Filipek.

You head an organization that promotes the use of alternative methods for generating energy. What do your efforts specifically involve?
The Polish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association was set up four years ago by researchers from the AGH University of Science and Technology. Today the association has more than 100 members. We have 10 supporting members who provide the money we need for our operations. We focus on education and research. As regards research, we are pursuing a project to develop materials for fuel cells and are also working on another project to build a high-temperature solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). We have applied to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education for research grants for these projects, but have not received any funds yet. We also work actively in education, hoping that the next generation of Polish engineers and decision makers will help Poland make a leap forward in the area of new energy generation technology.

Global demand for electricity is expected to double by 2050. Will new electricity generation technologies become a remedy for the world's thirst for energy?
Energy sources that seemed to be too expensive in the past are becoming increasingly attractive commercially. These include fuel cells, solar batteries and wind power generators. Interest in technologies based on gaseous hydrocarbon fuels, such as methane, propane butane, and pure hydrogen, has increased considerably as well. The chemical energy of fuels can be converted directly into electricity through a controlled process of electrochemical oxidation.

The main advantage of hydrogen is that it offers the potential for an almost direct conversion of hydrogen energy into electricity by reacting hydrogen with oxygen in fuel cells, and the ability to store a large amount of hydrogen energy. However, elemental hydrogen is very rare on Earth. Instead, hydrogen occurs in abundance in many chemical compounds such as water and hydrocarbons. In order to develop a hydrogen-based economy it is necessary to upgrade technologies to produce and store hydrogen and convert its chemical energy into electricity. The energy needed to produce hydrogen should come from renewable sources whose reserves are virtually unlimited-including first of all solar and wind energy and biomass.

How advanced is research into using hydrogen for energy purposes?
Problems related to hydrogen power generation comprise three basic areas of technology: methods to produce hydrogen, hydrogen storage and transmission technologies, and technologies to convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into usable energy. These technologies are already very advanced, but in terms of costs and reliability they are not yet competitive with regard to technologies for generating energy from fossil fuels. What is needed is a qualitative breakthrough in basic research. It is necessary to understand the phenomena and mechanisms involved in the interaction of hydrogen with matter. This will lead to the development of new functional materials for hydrogen technologies that will increase efficiency and reduce costs.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that the Americans are launching large national research projects and setting aside huge amounts of money for basic research focused on developing functional materials and understanding the microscopic interaction between hydrogen and matter. This will enable the development of supermaterials, or supercatalysts in the form of nanomaterials, that will contribute to progress in hydrogen technology.

The European Union's 7th Framework Program calls for a return to fundamental materials research. In October 2007, the European Commission came up with a proposal to set up a public-private research partnership referred to as the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative.

How can Polish researchers contribute to this project?
We have considerable research capacity in the field of hydrogen technologies and fuel cells. Poland has significant achievements in designing functional materials for high- and low-temperature fuel cells, and hydrogen storage. But the importance of this area of research, which is developing so rapidly in the world, has been underestimated in Poland. We need a comprehensive program for hydrogen technologies and fuel cells. Currently, our research centers work with foreign research institutions on an individual basis, contributing to the development of these technologies in other countries. As a result, in several decades we may be forced to buy technologies developed in conjunction with Polish scientists from foreign companies. But this does not have to be the case if the authorities take a close look at this research field and the achievements of Polish scientists, and decide to support the development of our hydrogen technologies.
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