"I was a dinosaur in 2009,” says Professor Kondo Francois Aguey-Zinsou. “I was still working on hydrogen when all the interest and funding switched to batteries. Nobody wanted to hear about hydrogen anymore.”
How times have changed. In 2020, the international investment firm Goldman Sachs said that green hydrogen, which is produced using carbon-free energy sources, was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that could give rise to a multi-trillion dollar global market by 2050.
The firm’s excitement was partly based around the potential for green hydrogen to decarbonise sectors of the economy where it's currently hard to do so, like peak-load power generation, heavy-duty transport, and high-temperature manufacturing. Working from the University’s School of Chemistry, Aguey-Zinsou is one of the world’s thought-leaders on hydrogen, focussed on refining and extending hydrogen-based technologies. But he has a wider social vision for it as well.
“We want to put this technology into people’s hands because it can be 3D printed almost anywhere using fully recyclable materials,” says Aguey-Zinsou. “People across the planet could have energy on a domestic level, so all of us can produce and sustain our individual energy needs. I think this is really where hydrogen is powerful.”
Though excited by these possibilities, Aguey-Zinsou flags a concern. “There’s a real danger that governments will want to monetise hydrogen for energy producers rather than create a practical and democratic hydrogen energy culture. That is why I think supporting the more open work of universities in this area is so important.”
People across the planet could have energy on a domestic level, so all of us can produce and sustain our individual energy needs. I think this is really where hydrogen is powerful.
Aguey-Zinsou’s philosophy of maximising the community benefit can be traced back to his birthplace, Benin in West Africa, and his father, who was politically active in removing the country’s French colonial shackles. At the same time, his French mother was determined Aguey-Zinsou would have a top-tier education which saw him, not entirely enthusiastically, enter a French boarding school at the age of 11. He now has three master’s degrees in complex subjects that support his hydrogen work.
“I don’t think of myself as having a studious nature,” says Aguey-Zinsou, in a rich accent that blends Benin and France. “But I am curious about things.”
So, why is hydrogen such a star of renewable energy?
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Our sun is 92 percent hydrogen; it is energy-dense, having three times the energy content, by weight, of petrol. Also, a hydrogen fuel cell powerplant is about twice as efficient at generating electricity as a combustion-type power plant; hydrogen can be produced almost anywhere, from various sources including water. Unlike most fuels, it is non-toxic when burned.
Though, as always, the devil is in the detail.
Yes, hydrogen is more energy-rich than petrol, but as a gas, it must be compressed for use in a car, for example, and needs a tank up to seven times bigger than for petrol. Liquid hydrogen for cars presents its own problems. It only exists at -253C, and in its liquid form, it is three times less energy-dense than petrol.
And while hydrogen is abundant in the universe, on earth it is an atom that likes company, and so is mostly bonded into molecules, most famously H2 O (water). That means to use hydrogen atoms as energy carriers, first you have to apply energy to free them.
Luckily this is straightforward, through a process called electrolysis that was discovered more than 200 years ago. By simply putting an electric current through water, the two hydrogen atoms (H2) will separate from the single oxygen atom (O) and bubble up for collection.
The easy part done, what happens to the hydrogen then has given Aguey-Zinsou a shopping list of things he is keen to achieve as quickly as his research resources will allow. In the past, philanthropic funding has accelerated his work, and he is grateful for a recent gift from the Thyne Reid Foundation. Additional support now would enable even faster acceleration, allowing him to dramatically advance hydrogen technologies, create more positions for bright new researchers, and equip his research labs with what his team needs to reach the goal of plentiful zero-carbon energy production and storage.
“There are so many avenues to pursue,” he says. “But one of the main goals right now is to take hydrogen production and storage to industrial scale. We’re also pretty excited about an idea for deploying the energy.”
I'm really passionate about making things that are meaningful, than empower people.
That idea is called solid-state storage, which goes beyond compressing and liquifying hydrogen. Instead, it allows hydrogen atoms to be held within a solid substance.
In the early days that substance was often magnesium, but Aguey-Zinsou and his team are investigating combinations of metals, termed intermetallics, to find one that would maximise hydrogen absorption and stability. This offers the possibility of hydrogen being part of a solid-state device that could be easily carried and plugged into fuel cells to drive vehicles and appliances. An electric bike and barbecue have already been built to successfully demonstrate the principle.
Another vital aspect of the work being done by Aguey-Zinsou’s team is making hydrogen production cheaper. As with most green technologies, affordability is particularly key.
Hydrogen is now mostly produced from natural gas (hydrogen created using fossil fuels is called ‘grey hydrogen’). This hydrogen costs around $2 per kilo to produce (“Because there is nothing cheaper than just digging a hole in the ground,” Aguey-Zinsou notes). Aguey-Zinsou is working to push the cost of green hydrogen down from the current cost of $6 per kilo to the $2 benchmark that will make commercially viable. Progress has certainly been encouraging.
“I’m really passionate about making things that are meaningful, that empower people,” says Aguey-Zinsou. “And it’s not just me; I think there is a whole movement of people out there thinking the same way.”
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This article was first published in November 2022.
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