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Russia "Burying" Hydrogen Power

Russia "Burying" Hydrogen Power

25.08.2009 — Analysis

Ural Electrochemical Integrated Plant proposed organising mass production of hydrogen power sources by 2020 to the Government. There is still no established mechanism in Russia for the investment into promising knowledge-intensive projects. This, in experts' opinion, is one of the key reasons why the country misses the developments of global importance.


Russia has for a long time been working on hydrogen power engineering. The hydrogen-oxygen power generating system for a lunar craft had been created as long ago as 1971; it had been tested on Earth and was ready to go into space. It had stemmed from the uranium isotope separation technology, on the basis of which the Ural Electrochemical Integrated Plant (UEIP) specialists have developed nickel-hydrogen accumulators and electrochemical power generators. One of the accumulator models has been for 10 years and still is working in orbit, on the Yamal-100 satellite providing power for radio and TV broadcasts. Another one is installed on the Sterkh satellite in orbit since the end of July 2009. The advantage of these devices is in that they do not need any hydrocarbon fuel; they are environmentally friendly and demonstrate a higher performance factor than traditional electric energy sources.

UEIP sees the future application of these designs not only in space. In the nineties the specialists had modernised the electrochemical generator Photon designed for the Buran space craft and installed on a car. However, this has not gone any further than the demonstration of its capacities, the majority of Russians would not be able to afford this environmentally sound car. The cost of a kilowatt of power in such vehicle varies from 10 to 25 thousand Euro (as a rule the engine power would be 60 kilowatts).

Experts claimed that there are possibilities for the reduction of cost of the "hydrogen" car. These include the use of cheaper materials, making the design simpler, and using non-precious metals as catalytic agents. However, Boris Pospelov, the Chief Engineer of UEIP's Electrochemical Converter Plant, claims that the world's best minds have not managed to significantly reduce the cost per kilowatt. Moreover, there is not be enough platinum in the world for the mass production of electric cars. This is why, in the expert's opinion, the world is going in a wrong direction.

UEIP specialists calculated that generators working on alkaline fuel cells are about 20% cheaper than polymer which is currently the preferred type in the world. In the future alkaline generators will be able to work on catalysts without precious metals. The working life of this type of generator is five times longer than polymer. Calculations demonstrate that with the start of mass production of the new energy sources with the total output capacity of 5 megawatt per year the kilowatt cost may be reduced from ten to three thousand Euro. By 2020, according to Boris Pospelov's prediction, it will be possible, when mass producing, to reduce the cost to less than a thousand Euro per kilowatt.

The developers, however, are aware that the hydrogen car will not appear on our roads too soon. First of all, the cost per kilowatt must be reduced significantly; secondly, hydrogen car filling station network must be established, and thirdly, the issues of making and storing hydrogen must be resolved. Nikolai Batalov, the Head of Laboratory of the Institute of High Temperature Electrochemistry, says that the cheapest, although quite dirty, method of obtaining hydrogen is from natural gas. Electrolysis (water decomposition) is cleaner but more expensive.

Mikhail Bazhenov, the head of the engineering design bureau of UEIP's electrochemical converters plant, is convinced that these problems will be resolved in the future. Water, for instance, can be electrolysed employing solar cells installed on rooftops. Their power generating capacity will be enough to replenish hydrogen and oxygen stocks in emergency power supply systems which are indispensable in hospitals, computer installations etc. Large power plants could use the output for electrolysis during the night time (when the work load reduces).

Leonid Solovyov, a Deputy Chief Engineer of the TGC-9 Sverdlovsk branch, presumes that the night time electrolysis at power plants is quite possible, providing there are large storage tanks for hydrogen and oxygen. The expert stresses that sooner or later the tanks will have to be built since power generation will have to make a fuel transition from mazut to liquefied gas in the foreseeable future. This will require tanks able to hold tens of thousands of cubic metres. It would be quite possible to build hydrogen storage tanks within the framework of this project, as, according to Nikolai Batalov, this gas is best stored in liquefied form.

Mikhail Bazhenov stressed that the economic indicators of the project will become acceptable sooner or later if appropriate research and experimental development work is carried out. The most important thing is that the customers are already there, waiting for the technology - an American company was interested in buying 5-kilowatt sources from UEIP for lifting and handling equipment working in indoor areas. The institute made calculations and established that the production will be profitable if a thousand units were made, and this will require certain outlay for the production lines. The Integrated Plant does not have the resources for this and the American customer was only prepared to pay for ready made units.

The developer tried obtaining governmental funds having submitted a 1.2 billion roubles request in 2008 to the Rosnano corporation since nanocatalysts are used in the fuel cell production. Experts already gave a positive conclusion for the UEIP design but later the generator's creators found out through unofficial channels that the scientific and technical council established in the corporation gave a negative assessment as the design "does not match the world class level". The irony is that the UEIP specialists created a device with electric characteristics and resources actually better than the world class, but formally the scientific and technical council was correct, this was not equal to the world class level.

Neither the developers were able to get any money from the Moscow government which started financing the development of an electrochemical generator to power environmentally sound vehicles. Mikhail Bazhenov says that the money never gets to the developers despite the fact that Moscow-based companies involved in the project already got it. All this forces the specialist to come to the conclusion that Russia is not ready to receive, in a befitting way, new developments promising high returns in the future. The red tape might result in the situation when out country will lose this technology and the decades spent on its development.

Serghey Shchekleyin, the Head of the Atomic Energy Department of the Ural State Technical University, is convinced that it is not the right time yet for a broad practical application of UEIP's brilliant design. Officials might come to their senses in a couple of decades when organic fuel becomes expensive. By that time Russians might get hopelessly behind; today, for instance, the production people have already no idea of what goes into making a TV set's innards. "I reckon that the UEIP's development must not be discarded", says the scientist. "Once upon a time we were ahead of everybody in hydrogen power engineering, but over the last 15 years we slowed down somewhat. It is very important not to fall too far behind the world trends, otherwise we'll get the situation like with TVs or cars, when we have no idea of what is inside them.

Mikhail Bazhenov is sure that it will not be possible to manage a push for this development "from below". The Buran programme for which the generator had been initially developed was adopted at the very top and because of that it had been implemented. Hydrogen generator for industry and for everyday life is a programme of no smaller scale and has to, therefore, be carried out by the Government. The most pressing issue here is the establishment of a comprehensible mechanism for the investment into promising developments which would enable getting practical benefits in a short timeframe.

Vladimir Terletski

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