The era of green hydrogen is finally about to begin, and Finland is in an excellent position to take a leading role in this growing market. One promising innovation boosting the production of hydrogen is being developed by Professor Pedro Camargo and his team at the University of Helsinki Department of Chemistry.
The team has invented a pioneering catalyst technology that can be used to produce green hydrogen at a lower price than before. The innovation solves several problems preventing the large-scale deployment of green hydrogen. At present, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels.
“Green hydrogen can be produced from water using renewable energy, without carbon dioxide emissions. But the problem is that the current means of production are expensive, as the metals required, such as platinum and iridium, are so valuable,” notes Camargo.
These precious metals act as catalysts accelerating the process of converting water into hydrogen. However, the metals are scarce, and some of the deposits are located in countries adversely affected by geopolitical tensions, which has hindered the growth of the green hydrogen market.
The technology developed by Camargo’s team helps reduce our dependence on precious metals and removes obstacles to the wider use of hydrogen. It can assist the steel industry, aviation, shipping and similar sectors in achieving carbon neutrality and curb the emissions driving climate change.
“People wouldn’t be short of energy, as it would be virtually free,” says Camargo of the opportunities afforded by an advanced hydrogen economy.
So how does this groundbreaking technology work in practice? The researchers have found a way to control where the active components of the catalysts used in hydrogen production are distributed. This makes the catalyst composed of nanoparticles more active, thus enabling the reduced use or eventually even relinquishment of precious metals.
In addition, the nanocatalysts developed by Camargo’s team have plasmonic properties. These allow the production of hydrogen off-grid, with light as the only energy source. The active components of a plasmonic catalyst are combined with metals or metal oxides, which then capture energy from visible light, similarly to an antenna. Finally, energy is transferred to the nanoparticle components functioning as catalysts, enabling hydrogen production.
“This opens up opportunities for producing hydrogen directly from sunlight without the need for electricity,” Camargo points out.
The innovation is founded on the basic chemistry research conducted by Camargo’s team in the Kumpula laboratories. The team of about 10 doctoral researchers, master’s students and postdoctoral researchers have succeeded in resolving the kind of challenges in plasmonic catalysis that others have yet to overcome.
“The hydrogen era is about to begin, and Finland is in a good position. We can do our bit to help the country take a leading role in this area.”
For two years from September 2023, ReLIGHT will receive Business Finland’s Research to Business funding to continue developing the technology and launch its commercialisation. The plan is to find collaboration partners, conduct market research and explore suitable business models. The process for patenting the technology has begun, and the aim is to establish a spinout company after the project ends.
Tuomas Mennola, who is responsible for commercialising the project, believes the innovation has considerable market potential and says that the timing and conditions are excellent. The hydrogen era is finally dawning, the political will is there, and funding is available.
“Finland is a really good place to do this. We have world-class research and a well-developed hydrogen cluster,” he says.
The team is happy to talk to a wide range of potential collaboration partners, investors and customers. Mennola is confident that ReLight holds the keys to success. He says that successful commercialisation requires at least three things: a strong technical solution, brilliant people and sufficient funding.
“We have all of these ready for the next stage, so things are looking good.”
Green hydrogen plays a key role in enabling a green transition in society and helping the steel industry and the transport and similar sectors achieve carbon neutrality. However, the expansion of green hydrogen is hindered by the scarcity and high costs of the precious metals used as catalysts in production.
ReLIGHT is developing a technology that reduces the need to use precious metals in hydrogen production. The idea is that plasmonic catalysis will enable the production of green hydrogen even directly from sunlight. This would boost the growth of the hydrogen market and help mitigate climate change.
During the Research to Business project, ReLIGHT will investigate various business models. One option is to establish a company manufacturing catalysts for companies in the electrolysis equipment industry. Business Finland will fund the project until autumn 2025. The subsequent goal is to establish a spinout company.
The ReLIGHT team is happy to talk to all potential collaboration partners, investors and customers.