A major energy change is due begin during the next decade, when hydrogen should become an important fuel for electrical energy generation and for vehicle transportation, substituting, little by little, diesel and gasoline, for example. Preparation for this new scenario involves various research institutes, all of the manufacturers of the automobile industry, as well as petrochemical and energy companies all over of the planet. Reasons for the use of hydrogen are not in short supply: the price of a barrel of crude oil reached the mark of US$ 78 in July, whilst it had not gone past US$ 40 in the year 2000, and there is the necessity to decease atmospheric pollution. The use of this gas, formed by two atoms of hydrogen (H2) will help to decrease the presence of another, carbon dioxide (CO2), produced by the burning of fuels coming from petroleum, also called carbonic gas, the main cause of the greenhouse effect, the phenomenon that could increase the planet’s temperature and bring about various environmental and public health problems.
With the advance in fuel cells, which, in a manner similar to that of a battery, produce electrical energy from hydrogen and could be installed in a car or in a stationary generator, this new energy option is gaining ground in hundreds of technological projects. In Brazil, one of the research lines is looking to develop a piece of equipment, called a reformer, to make use of the production of ethanol (CH3CH2OH) from sugarcane, the alcohol found at gas stations. From ethanol it is possible to extract hydrogen, which is not found in nature in an isolated form, in large quantities, although it is the most abundant element present in the Universe, from stars to water (H2O). The equipment would overcome the difficulty of obtaining hydrogen. The first research group to finalize a reformer is located at the Hydrogen Laboratory (LH2) of the Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), linked to the National Reference Center for Hydrogen Energy (Ceneh).
The reformers developed at the LH2, which also exist in versions that extract hydrogen from natural gas (CH4), have begun to be installed in isolated communities in Amazonia, Mato Grosso, at Unicamp’s Hospital das Clínicas and in experiments with companies that produce electrical energy such as the Paulista Light and Power Company (CPFL). The objectives are different, but the final intention is to evaluate the cost-benefit situation of the new system. “With the CPFL-Piratininga plant we’re working on the integration of a reformer with a fuel cell produced by a Brazilian company, UniTech, a company with its headquarters in the Paulista town of Cajobi (see Pesquisa FAPESP 70 and 103), with power output of 2 kilowatts (kW) to be installed in a house as yet undefined”, says professor Ennio Peres da Silva, the head of the LH2 and the executive secretary of Ceneh. In this case the reformer will work with natural gas, equal to another that is being installed in the community of Arixi, in the town of Anamã, in the state of Amazonas.
The community of 600 people have electrical energy produced by a diesel generator whose fuel arrives in town by boat up the Amazon river. The natural gas, which is going to supply hydrogen to an imported fuel cell, will come from Petrobras’ gas pipeline which passes close to there. The project makes up part of the Alternative Energy Production Program starting from Fuel Cells and Natural Gas of Amazonas State (Celcomb in the Portuguese acronym) and is being funded by the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Energy Sectorial Fund (CT-Energ), to the sum of R$ 500,000 and has professor Carlos Alberto Figueiredo, from the Technology Faculty of the Federal University of Amazonas as its coordinator.
In the state of Mato Grosso, in a project with the company North Brazil Electric Centers (Eletronorte) and the Federal University of Mato Grosso, the LH2 is going to install, at the start of 2007, an ethanol reformer and a fuel cell in a community close to the city of Cuiabá. The enterprise will have alcohol supplied to it by the Sugar/Alcohol Industries Syndicate of Mato Grosso State (Sindialcool). In another project with the CPFL, the LH2 is going to install a fuel cell at Unicamp’s hospital for comparative tests with other electrical energy generating systems based on natural gas (micro-turbines and photovoltaic panels fed by solar energy). “In these three projects we’re importing the fuel cells because the companies that produce this equipment in Brazil are still at the prototype phase and have higher prices than those imported.” As well as Unitech, in the country there is Electrocell (see Pesquisa Fapesp 92 and 104), in São Paulo, and NovoCell, in the town of Americana. Peres had already purchased an imported fuel cell to equip the van named Vega II completed in 2004, mounted upon a Kombi chassis, which feeds 20 batteries, enough to run the vehicle’s electric motor.
If the researchers are importing fuel cells, at least for now, when the national companies prepare themselves to supply, in the near future, electrical generators working off hydrogen for residences and industries, the reverse pathway is also being realized in the case of reformers. “An ethanol reformer was sold to the National Aerospace Technical Institute (Inta) of the Spanish Ministry of Defense, which is also researching this same question”, says Peres. In order to turn the prototype reformer, which had funding through a FAPESP thematic project, commercially viable and to provide the equipment for the LH2 projects, the company Hytron was founded, by students linked to the laboratory.
“The company has the objective of giving a product apparel to the reformer, as well as providing guarantees and offering a technical service”, informs Peres. The product that is going off to Spain at the end of the year cost the Spanish R$ 150,000. “At Hytron there are 12 people, three with doctoral degrees, six with their master’s degree and four studying for their master’s degree, who also offer a consulting service in the field of energy”, says Paulo Fabrício Palhavan Ferreira, one of the Hytron partners. The company is installed in the company incubator of the High Technology Company Development Center of Campinas (Ciatec).
Cost of electricity
The Hytron company, which received financial support through the Small Business Research Program (PIPE), is also involved in electrolysis projects, equipment for the production of hydrogen starting from water. Called electrolysis, this process is an easier way to produce hydrogen by breaking down, by way of an electric current, water molecules. The problem is the high cost of this procedure, which uses electrical energy to carry out electrolysis, resulting in the same electrical energy in another point of the system.
The reformers, on the other hand, do not spend electrical energy in order to work. They are made up of reactors in which the chemical reaction of the fuel (ethanol, natural gas, gasoline etc.), along with air, releases heat and activates the reform. Also in the reactor the same fuel reacts with water to produce hydrogen. A mixture of gases comes out that needs to be purified and separated. This equipment should play an important role in the economic future of hydrogen. “The idea is that they should be installed in gas stations, transforming whatever type of fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel, natural gas) or the biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel) into hydrogen to feed vehicles.”, explains Peres. He bases this idea on the fact that fuel cells will certainly equip cars in the place of the current combustion engines.
The Japanese company Honda, for example, launched the FCX (FC standing for Fuel Cell, and X the name of the fuel cell) in Japan and the United States and has made it available, by way of rental, to cities and even as a family car (husband, wife and two children), during 2005, in Los Angeles city, in California, where the car manufacturer’s station for refueling with hydrogen exists, as well as others already installed or in the process of installation. For now it is a demonstration car, such as the Class A, from Mercedes-Benz, produced in Germany, that already has 60 units moved by hydrogen and is being tested until 2007, in Europe, North America and Asia. General Motors, with its Zafira vehicle, Ford with its Focus, as well as Hyundai, Fiat, Renault and Toyota are also testing vehicles run on hydrogen.
Another advantage of fuel cell cars is that this silent equipment possesses double the energy efficiency compared with the energy spend by the current engines. If the same liter of gasoline used for a current engine was sufficient to drive 10 kilometers (km), with the fuel cell engine the distance covered would be 20 km. “As the reformers and the cars are spending less it becomes easier for the oil industry to contribute to the decrease of greenhouse gases, improving the air situation”, says Peres. Hydrogen is thus a good alternative for the Kyoto Protocol, the world agreement that established the rules for the reduction of the greenhouse effect gases, mainly CO2, throughout the planet.
Weighing in on this scenario are the studies from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that indicate a lowering of the crude oil stocks in the producing countries, starting from 2010, but which do not belong to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), such as the United States, Russia and Norway.
In the following decades OPEC’s reserves must also begin to fall. If new fields are not to be found, the tendency is for production to diminish and for crude oil to begin to become scarce, resulting in a further increase in prices. This can be added to the forecasts of an increase in consumption due to economic growth of the developing countries, principally China.
Analysis and forecast studies about vehicles run on hydrogen, including that from the AIE, indicate that they must definitely enter into the market by 2025 and in 2050 they should occupy 30% of the world market, estimated at 700 million vehicles. Thus, in this global context, to produce hydrogen is fundamental. Currently, it is only used industrially for the production of ammonia, a raw material in the manufacture of fertilizers, in the production of diesel and in the food industry in the preparation of hydrogenated vegetal fat, used, above all, in the preparation of margarines, biscuits and chocolates.
The energy use of hydrogen includes the lowering of the greenhouse effect gases, even through the use of a reformer that, by way of a chemical reaction within its reactor, breaks down the natural gas molecules or even those of methanol (produced from petroleum or from wood), liberating CO2. With a fixed reformer, in a fuel (gas) station or at the side of an industrial generator, for example, this gas could be recovered and pass through chemical reactions, such as acidification, or the process of adsorption (retention of molecules of one substance on the surface of a solid), afterwards placed in tubes to be taken away, compressed and put in a hole in the ground instead of being thrown up into the atmosphere.
Research into fuel reformers in Brazil is important because they could both be installed in gas stations and in stationary generators. With one natural gas point it is possible to supply the electrical energy for a house, for example, with one fuel cell generator of the size of today’s washing machine. Thus the reformers are on the development agenda of other research groups in Brazil, such as the two at the Coordination of Postgraduate Engineering Programs (Coppe), of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “We’ve developed a process capable of improving and making more efficient the reform of natural gas and ethanol”, stated Paulo Emílio de Miranda, the coordinator of Coppe’s Hydrogen Laboratory.
The group developed and had patented a reactor used in reformers that works on the basis of plasma pyrolysis, a system that does not use water vapor nor catalysts (substances that accelerate a chemical reaction), as in the traditional methods, and does use an ionized gas, where positive ions and electrons coexist. The high temperature dissociates the molecules of the fuel used. “In this system neither carbon dioxide gas (CO2) nor carbon monoxide gas is produced. The carbon existing in these fuels transforms itself into a solid residue called black smoke, which is one of the raw materials for tires”, advised coordinator Miranda.
Also at Coppe, professor Martin Schmal and his group have developed catalysts and reactors for natural gas and ethanol reformers. “Our intention is to produce the maximum amount of hydrogen and the minimum possible of CO2 and CO”, says Schmal. “We’ve already registered patents for the catalysts that are highly efficient and today are the object of desire of countries such as China.” For Schmal, the reformers for fuel cells as yet do not have a ready made solution at the level of the world. Various research projects are being carried out in order to find the most efficient and least costly pathway.
Rio de Janeiro has another center of technology development for energy from hydrogen that is within the National Technology Institute (INT), linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). The group, coordinated by the researcher Fábio Bellot Noronha, is working on various development projects of ethanol reformers with the Coppe and in partnership with the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN), of the MCT, and the Electrical Energy Research Center (Cepel), which recently purchased a fuel cell from the São Paulo company Electrocell. “We’re developing technology for the production of hydrogen starting from natural gas, in work financed by Petrobras that has ended in a patent”, says Noronha.
The so-called “hydrogen economy”, which is being sketched out all over the planet, is going to bring some aspects that are unusual until this moment, such as the possibility of the decentralization of energy. One of the alternatives is to maintain, within a residence, a fuel cell generating electrical energy starting from natural gas. In off-peak hours in the house, for example at night or during an absence by the owner, it would be possible to provide energy to a local network. Thus each house could, as well as being a consumer, generate electricity and sell it to the local light company, which, for its part, would depend less on electrical energy coming from afar, from the hydroelectric power stations or thermoelectric plants.
In other cases, industries and hydroelectric companies themselves will have other advantages. “A dairy that we’re studying produces in its effluent 67% methane gas (CH4), which is a part of natural gas, and from 3% to 8% of the acidic gas hydrogen sulfide (H2S). “On removing this gas with a active carbon filter or an iron hydroxide filter, which is being developed by us, the remaining gas can be used in a reform system to produce hydrogen and electrical energy for the very diary farm itself”, says José Luz Silveira, the coordinator of the Optimization of Energy Systems Group (Gose), of the Engineering School of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) at the town of Guaratinguetá. Silveira is also developing research into reformers. At the beginning of July he handed over a prototype to the Energy Company of Minas Gerais (Cemig), in a project financed by the company itself and supervised by the National Electrical Energy Agency (Aneel).
Another two major Brazilian companies are also studying the use of hydrogen energy. One is Petrobras, which has been investing US$ 1 million per year since the year 2000 in research and development both at its Petrobras Research Center (Cenpes) and in partnerships with research institutes. “Hydrogen is emerging as the viable alternative energy source for the country and we, as a petroleum company, and having transformed ourselves into a energy company, are developing studies to evaluate all of the future business opportunities for the company”, stated Maria Helena Troise Frank, a consultant with Petrobras’ gas and energy management.
The company is studying alternatives for production, storage, refueling stations, distribution logistics, uses and applications of hydrogen, even because the company already possesses knowledge in this area on producing 500 tons of hydrogen per day, starting from gas effluent from its refineries, used for the production of diesel and ammonia. “We’re researching and analyzing all of the possibilities of fuel cells both from the automobile point of view and from the production of systems for the generation of electrical energy”, says Paulo Fernando Isabel dos Reis, Pertobras’ coordinator in the area of fuel cells. The company is also wagering on the production of hydrogen from biomass, which is the gasification, by way of thermo-chemical processes, of sugarcane bagasse, brickettes of wood and industry rejected organic compounds, for example. “Brazil has a vocation for this, we’re the Saudi Arabia of the biomass”, suggests Reis.
Another major company that is studying the use of hydrogen energy is the Itaipu Bi-National. According to the season of the year, during periods of full reservoir, the company produces 3,000 Megawatts, energy sufficient for dozens of small towns, which is not made use of because of lack of transmission lines or for not having the demand. One of the ideas is to produce hydrogen by electrolysis and at low cost alongside the Itaipu Plant, in Parana State. Initially this hydrogen could be for industrial use and later on, by way of a specific pipeline, could reach gas stations to feed the future hydrogen vehicles.
The heart of the fuel cell
Electrolysis is the option for hydrogen production that the team of professors Roberto Fernando de Souza and Jaírton Dupont, from the Chemistry Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) is basing its research. They’re developing, with the financial support of the Electrical Energy State Company (CEEE) of Rio Grande do Sul, a new electrolysis system that separates the hydrogen from the water using an ionic liquid, an organic electrical energy conductor substance called imidazolium salts. “As well as common electrolysis, this liquid can be used in the place of the fuel cell heart”, says Souza. He was referring to the fuel cell’s electrolytes that place the electrodes in near contact and in which hydrogen and oxygen react generating electricity.
Currently two types of fuel cell most researched for commercial use exist: One that uses a polymer membrane, the so called PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel cell and the solid oxide fuel cell or SOFC (Solid Oxide Fuel Cell), with an electrolyte formed by various types of ceramic material. “We’re registered our patent covering the use of ionic liquids for the electrolysis of water and another for the use of the same fluid material in fuel cells. We’re convinced that electrolysis is the best path for us not to continue polluting the planet”, says Souza. “The electrolysis of water is the easiest manner to obtain hydrogen of high purity both starting from renewable energies such as hydroelectric at night when consumption falls, and also by way of wind or solar energy.”
A Brazilian bus using H2
By the end of 2007 a bus run on hydrogen should be circulating on the line that runs through the São Paulo districts of São Mateus and Jabaquara, a 33 kilometer route that also passes through the cities of Diadema, São Bernardo do Campo, Mauá and Santo André. The bus will be built in Brazil by a consortium of national and foreign companies and should be publicly announced during this month of August. Under the coordination of the Urban Metropolitan Transport Company (EMTU), of the São Paulo State Secretariat of Transport, the project is going to count upon financial support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), of the United Nations Development Program (Pnud), to the sum of US$ 12.5 million. The Brazilian counterpart and the organization of the consortium lie with the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), which, by way of the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), is going to invest a further US$ 3.5 million.
The first version of this project was to be implemented in 2002 with a bus coming from Europe.
“Now we’re going to built the bus and all of the necessary infrastructure to produce hydrogen via the electrolysis of water, as well as acquiring knowledge about the bus construction, costs, operation, maintenance and safety of this type of vehicle”, says Márcio Schettino, the development manager at the EMTU. “The idea is to build the first one and, during 2008, build four more.”
In Rio de Janeiro another hydrogen bus is under construction. The project is the initiative of the Postgraduate Engineering Programs Coordination (Coppe), of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) as well as Petrobrás and Finep.
“This’ll be a hybrid bus that’s going to work off only a fuel cell or with an electric motor by of a group of batteries recharged by the fuel cell”, explains professor Paulo Emílio de Miranda, the project’s coordinator. The hydrogen will be obtained starting from Petrobras’ natural gas. The project can also count upon the input of the coach building company Buscar, from the city of Joinville, in Santa Catarina State, and of Eletra, a company in Sao Bernardo do Campo, which builds buses with electric drives (see Pesquisa FAPESP No 92). Similar experiments have already been done in Europe and in the United States. “Europe lasted two years and ended up this year with 30 buses in ten European cities. And the results were very good, with no problems in terms of operation and safety”, says manager Schettino.
Schedule until 2030
By 2010 Brazil should be starting to commercially generate hydrogen by way of the reformation of natural gas and in 2020 it will be the turn of ethanol. These two forecasts are present in the beta version (as yet not defined) of “Schedule for the structuring of hydrogen economy in Brazil”, which received the collaboration of 115 professionals, between researchers at scientific and technological institutions and companies. The overall coordination of the schedule is with the Ministry of Mining and Energy (MME) and the technical integration with the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). This schedule is going to lead to, probably in 2007, a national program for the production and use of hydrogen. “We’re defining the routes that interest Brazil and that can generate social and economic benefits, as well as studying the related technologies”, says professor Mauricio Pereira Cantão, a researcher at the Technology for Development Institute (Lactec), of Curitiba, Parana, and a programming consultant.
“It’s probable that by 2030 hydrogen will have good participation in the country’s energy matrix”, says Adriano Duarte Filho, the general coordinator of sectorial technologies at the MCT. “Now our intention is to generate sources of knowledge, to register patents and not just to simply import ready make models”, suggests r Duarte Filho. Since 2002 the MCT has been maintaining the Brazilian Program of Fuel Cell Systems. Recently it suffered modifications, was broadened and now has the name Science, Technology and Innovation Programs for a Hydrogen Economy. This year the program has already implemented three research networks involving, in a period of three years, 34 laboratories and 20 universities and a sum of R$ 29 million.
1. Technical, economic and environmental analysis on the use of sugarcane for the sustainable generation of electrical energy (nº 01/14302-1); Modality Thematic Project; Coordinator José Goldemberg — USP; Investment R$ 1,092,212.30 (FAPESP) and R$ 125,700.00 (Sub-Project)
2. Development and optimization of an integrated ethanol reform unit for the production of hydrogen (nº 05/50908-2); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator João Carlos Camargo — Hytron; Investment R$ 42,980.00 and US$ 7,100.00 (FAPESP)