Today, lithium-ion batteries are used everywhere from smartphones to electric cars. However, they have some serious drawbacks. While scientists around the world are fighting to eliminate these problems, the Hydrogen Express team, finalists of the ’SPbU Start-up – 2020’ contest, is creating a fuel cell that can surpass lithium-ion batteries in numerous parameters.
The production and gradual improvement of lithium-ion batteries was a breakthrough in science and technology. The scientists who contributed most to the technology – John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino – were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019. However, the use of lithium-ion batteries is marred by their relatively short operating time, low-temperature range, explosiveness and fire hazard, possible energy loss, and the threat they pose to the environment.
The captain of the Hydrogen Express team, Anastasiia Karaman, is a first-year master’s student of ‘Geophysics’. She came up with the idea of the project as a result of her own professional background.
‘I participated in a series of geophysical projects to explore and exploit mineral resources. The job involved measuring the magnetic and electrical properties of rocks with special instruments. It takes several months to complete the work when you do it on foot, and it takes even longer in rugged terrain areas with rivers. Human resources are the most expensive for the clients because, in addition to paying salaries, you also have to cover the cost of travel,’ says Anastasiia Karaman.
Captain of the Hydrogen Express Team Anastasiia Karaman said, “Then I found out that with a quadrotor you could do the work that people would do for a month in one day. I began to think about improving the research equipment – unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with special devices.”
However, quadrotors powered by lithium-ion batteries have a serious limitation – their operating time. It is particularly affected by sub-zero temperatures. Anastasiia Karaman’s research supervisor, Associate Professor of the Department of Geophysics of St Petersburg University Alexey Goncharov suggested using an alternative energy source for the drones. He also introduced her to the students from the design workshop, and they began to implement the idea with her. Soon, Alexey Goncharov became the research supervisor of the start-up project.
The Hydrogen Express team, led by Anastasiia Karaman, includes four other students from St Petersburg University: Stepan Danilov (second-year master’s student of ‘Fundamental and Applied Aspects of Nanomaterials and Nanotechnologies’), Aleksandr Kovalchukov (second-year bachelor’s student of ‘Applied Mathematics and Informatics’), Daria Pichugina (fourth-year bachelor’s student of ‘Physics’) and Aleksandr Ivanov (second-year doctoral student of ‘Economics’). The students are assisted by Oleg Levin, Associate Professor of the Department of Electrochemistry of St Petersburg University.
Second-year master’s student at St Petersburg University Stepan Danilov said, “The fuel cell we are developing can become an affordable source of energy and open new perspectives in electric engineering.”
‘For example, quadrotors will be able to fly longer, which will have a positive impact on geological research. Also, due to the fact that fuel cells are easy to scale-up, they can be used in electric cars. This will reduce the volume and weight of their energy system. In the future, such innovations may improve the competitiveness of cars using environmentally friendly fuels,’ explains Stepan Danilov.
However, despite the diversity of possible fuel cell applications, the team members focused on quadrotors. They explain their choice by the fact that the unmanned aerial vehicle market in Russia is growing very rapidly – by 40% annually. Another reason is that the companies involved in their production are notable for their openness to innovative solutions.
‘We can manufacture any battery to order – for a specific quadrotor and a specific task. We use standard construction elements and hydrogen cylinders. Of course, we can’t start large-scale production. In our case, the ideal option is the small-scale production of batteries,’ says Stepan Danilov.
Stepan Danilov noted that the sphere of hydrogen cell production in Russia is still in its infancy – there are separate enterprises, but the niche as a whole is not filled. Nevertheless, hydrogen batteries are widely used in the world. For example, the Chinese city of Changshu runs a large-scale hydrogen programme – in a few years they plan to switch completely to hydrogen energy. Moreover, in 2017, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, major automakers such as BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota established the Hydrogen Council. Some of these manufacturers are already producing hydrogen powered cars. A solar-powered hydrogen station has been built in the Japanese town of Namie, which can power 560 fuel cell cars per day.
‘The hydrogen fuel cell is also interesting because its generators are not so hard to make or buy. This allows the devices to be recharged even in the field. Of course, you will need petrol for that, but the point is in the autonomy in difficult situations. Eventually, it will be possible to successfully replace its petrol analogues with hydrogen power generators,’ believes Stepan Danilov.
The team members also note that they have already created a unique nanomaterial based on a simple nickel element which will be used as a proton exchange membrane. One of its important qualities is its low cost compared to the membranes used today in the manufacture of hydrogen fuel cells. The fuel cell is expected to be 30% cheaper than its existing analogs.
Another important feature of the fuel cell developed by Hydrogen Express is the use of an innovative nanostructured nickel mesh as a catalyst.
‘The most important thing for a catalyst is that it should not be very expensive and should have a high power output per square centimeter. You can increase this useful surface through porosity,’ explains Stepan Danilov. ‘Knowing this, we used nanostructured nickel. It resembles Raney nickel, but we managed to make the material even more porous. In order to further increase the activity of the catalyst, we introduced platinum nano points into it – they are so small that they have little or no effect on the cost of the fuel cell. This allows our project to compete with lithium-ion batteries in terms of price and performance.
The hydrogen fuel cell prototypes for quadrotors last two to three times longer due to their higher capacity. While the operating temperature of lithium-ion batteries ranges from minus 20 °C to plus 60 °C, the hydrogen fuel cells developed by the Hydrogen Express team have a much larger operating temperature range – from minus 60 °C to plus 80 °C.
According to the team members, modern hydrogen fuel cells are quite comparable in terms of safety with internal combustion engines, but unlike them and lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells do not harm the environment.
This is the fifth time the SPbU Start-up contest has been held at the University. Teams that present the most knowledge-intensive and commercially promising business models will receive money prizes from the St Petersburg University Endowment Fund. First place earns 300,000 roubles, second place – 200,000 roubles, and third – 100,000 roubles. In addition, the two winning teams may be offered the opportunity to create small innovative enterprises together with the University. Grants for their development will amount to 1,000,000 and 700,000 roubles. Detailed information about the ‘SPbU Start-up – 2020’ contest can be found on the website of the St Petersburg University Endowment Fund.
At the final stage of the contest the team plans to demonstrate to the jury a working fuel cell mounted on a chassis. Unfortunately, the work on it is delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic – the cell remains in the laboratory, access to which is not available. However, it will take no more than three weeks to complete the remaining work, so it is quite realistic to finish the job by the finals, thinks Stepan Danilov.
‘This contest has proved incredibly useful for us. On the one hand, we gained new knowledge in economics, management, and marketing. On the other hand, we had the experience of standing before an expert jury,’ says Anastasiia Karaman. ‘Even if the victory in the “SPbU Start-up – 2020” contest goes to another team, “Hydrogen Express” will continue its project. After all, taking part in the contest was not the only reason for working on it. For us, this is just the beginning, and the first opportunity to test our idea.’