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Applying hydrogen in cars or toilets

This is where science has a part to play
04 June 2024

Professor of Energy Conversion Aravind Purushothaman Vellayani is working on systems that use hydrogen to produce electricity – for large factories, for instance. But even your car or your toilet could be capable of producing electricity from hydrogen. Aravind: ‘The technology is available, but for commercial applications, it is often still too expensive. So, this is where science has a part to play: bridging the gap from fundamental knowledge to applications.’ 

FSE Science Newsroom | Text Charlotte Vlek | Images Leoni von Ristok

A hydrogen filling station
Hydrogen filling station of Holthausen Energy Points, Bornholmstraat Groningen

‘There is a lot of hydrogen research being carried out at the University of Groningen, and technologically speaking, a lot is already possible.’ In his newly acquired role as Director of Hydrogen Economy at the Wubbo Ockels School for Energy and Climate, Professor Aravind aims to bring all these possibilities together, within and outside the walls of the University. 

In his own research, Aravind works closely together with industrial partners. ‘Hydrogen is an excellent candidate for applications in transportation; for instance for inland shipping or trucks. A hydrogen-based fuel cell has the advantage that it weighs very little, and it allows you to travel longer distances than an electric car can.’

From fundamental questions to applications

We want to know exactly how the electrodes in such a system work, or what happens to a fuel cell when the inflow of hydrogen gas varies in composition or temperature.

In the lab, the PhD students in Aravind’s group work on fundamental questions, that need to be answered to enable large applications. They study the finest details of electrolysers that convert electricity to hydrogen, fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity, or systems that could perform both reactions: from electricity to hydrogen and back.

The goal, of course, is to make these energy conversions take place as efficiently as possible. Aravind: ‘For instance, we want to know exactly how the electrodes in such a system work, or what happens to a fuel cell when the inflow of hydrogen gas varies in composition or temperature. Once our lab is fully operational, we hope to measure these things while the actual conversion is taking place, which will be quite unique.’ 

A broad approach

Aravind combines working in the lab with using computer models, that map out exactly where the heat in the system is and reveal where energy losses occur. One PhD student works on models of the HydroHub, a test centre at Zernike Campus where different types of electrolysers can be tested on a larger scale. Aravind: ‘The efficiency can potentially change when you scale up, and that’s what we are investigating.’ 

About cars and toilets

‘The funniest example of a system that can convert energy, is from my time at TU Delft,’ Aravind laughs. ‘Back then, we were working on a toilet that extracted hydrogen from human faeces and converted it to electricity. The idea was: instead of disposing of human waste and using a lot of energy to clean the sewage water again, you could use it on the spot as a source of energy, for example in a shared toilet facility that also serves as a power plant for the neighbourhood.’

hydrogen filling station (detail)
A hydrogen filling station (detail)

In Aravind’s research, nearly everything can serve as a power plant. Even your hydrogen car of the future—the one that you park in front of your house when you come home: ‘You connect it to a pipeline that supplies hydrogen, and you’ve got your own personal power plant. Can you imagine? You wouldn’t even have to pay for parking anymore, you could earn money by parking your car somewhere.’

The  Hydrogen Valley Campus Europe  is located in the Northern Netherlands. It is the place where green energy comes ashore (from wind turbines on the North Sea), where years of working with natural gas has led to a wealth of experience, and where universities and vocational institutions will work on new research and the education of the next generation of engineers for the hydrogen economy of the future. This is episode 2 of a series on hydrogen research at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Groningen.

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Last modified:06 June 2024 3.09 p.m.
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