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Green Electricity at the South Pole: Solar Hydrogen as an Alternative to Oil?

By June 11, 2019

June 11, 2019

Can research stations in the Antarctic use solar energy to produce “solar hydrogen” and use it as a sustainable energy store? The feasibility study by Matthias May (Helmholtz Center Berlin) and Kira Rehfeld (University of Heidelberg) will be funded as part of the “Experiment!” Initiative. Next deadline for “Experiment!” is the 10th of July 2019. 

In addition to penguins, especially researchers live in the Antarctic: they collect neutrinos, analyze glaciers and ice cores or investigate how organisms survive the hostile conditions.

Elaborate and risky: energy supply with oil

The research stations are operated year-round and require heat and electricity, most of which is produced from crude oil. How complex the transportation of oil in this region of the world, however, the environment physicist noted Dr. Kira Rehfeld , University of Heidelberg , when she herself participated in an Antarctic expedition. Even the smallest leaks are an enormous problem for the fragile ecosystem, so strict conditions must be observed during transport.

Hydrogen as storage for solar energy

At the same time during the summer months the sun shines in the Antarctic around the clock and very intense. Wouldn’t it be possible to transform this solar energy into an energy that is easy to store? This idea was played by Kira Rehfeld after her return home together with  dr. Matthias May  from the Helmholtz Center Berlin (HZB). May researches complex material systems that split sunlight into oxygen and hydrogen with sunlight. Hydrogen stores the energy of light as chemical energy. If necessary, this chemical energy can be converted into electrical energy (electricity) or heat, producing only water and no harmful emissions. And a central point: Hydrogen gas can be stored very well in pressure cylinders, so that hydrogen is also available for the winter time.

Antarctic challenge

The idea: In summer, melt water is split in a module of solar cells and catalysts into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The H2 is stored. (Graphic: Heike Cords / HZB)

Rehfeld and May now want to examine in a feasibility study, to what extent the technology works even under the extreme conditions of the Antarctic. In doing so, they must develop solutions for a number of problems: For solar water splitting, photovoltaic layers must be combined with the electrochemical reactions. While photovoltaics work quite well at temperatures below zero degrees, chemical reactions are very slow when it is cold. In addition, modules for the production of hydrogen with sunlight must run largely maintenance-free and autonomous.

On the other hand, the first solution approaches do not necessarily have to be particularly inexpensive. “The triumphant advance of photovoltaics has also started with solar cells that were initially very expensive and could only be used in satellites,” argues May. “Supplying the Antarctic stations with crude oil is extremely complex and, in addition, involves high risks for the environment. It is definitely rewarding to think about alternatives, “says Kira Rehfeld.

The Volkswagen Foundation is funding the project as part of the funding initiative ” Experiment !” with 120,000 euros.

Background: The funding initiative “Experiment!”

“Experiment!” is aimed at researchers from the natural, engineering, and life sciences, who want to test a radically new and risky research idea. The funding amounts to a maximum of 120,000 euros and is limited to a maximum of 18 months. As a request a short sketch is sufficient, the funded projects are selected via a partially randomized procedure  . The next deadline is 10th July 2019 . All information about the funding initiative can be found under ” Experiment !”.

Source: The Volkswagen Foundation

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