Bioenergy, Storage

Greek Researchers Working on Fuel Cells

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.

PATRAS, Greece – June 25, 2002 [SolarAccess.com] 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. 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. 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. 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.