The Future of Energy in Europe and in particular in Portugal is focused on the consolidation and expansion of Renewable Sources, mostly wind. The main target is to create Smart Energy Systems, 100% Renewable. To this end, storage of energy is mandatory, due mainly to intermittency, but also because it might be useful to increase the value of possible wind surplus preventing negative impact of an excess of 'green electricity' being pumped onto the grids. Furthermore, the capability of storing wind power can be seen as a good response to climate changes which are expected, namely for the South of Europe including Portugal, for the next decades. From a sustainability point of view, a synergy between hydrogen and electricity and Renewable Energy Sources is particularly interesting. 

Among different alternatives to produce hydrogen, the water electrolysis using renewable energy has the potential to overcome the limitations of the intermittency occurring on typical renewable energy sources stations such as wind parks. Electrolysers converting electricity from a renewable source into chemical energy combined with fuel cells transforming hydrogen back into electricity provide the means for efficient storage and prompt a wider diffusion of distributed generation systems. This solution is usually implemented through devices combining a fuel cell and an electrolyser, usually known as a Regenerative Fuel Cell (RFC). In practice, the RFC comprises two devices in one, which adds cost, size and system complexity. The Unitized Regenerative Fuel Cell (URFC) includes in the same device the electyrolyzer converting electricity in hydrogen and oxygen, and the fuel cell producing electricity using the stored hydrogen. Although the cost, weight and volume of an URFC are potentially lower than for the RFC, the materials and the device critical function requirements are more severe. 


The work plan

Activity #1) Innovation Supporting Actions, to define and control the project development strategy, including risk assessment/contingency plans, to define the dissemination and communication action, as well as the IPR protection and exploitation strategy, and setting up and nurturing an extensive network of stakeholders.

 Activity #2) Synthesis and physicochemical characterization of electrolytes, centred on the development of various types of electrolytes with protonic or hydroxyl conduction with improved conductivity over temperature and humidity ranges, improved mechanical strength and general thermo-chemical stability under the operating conditions, with low fuel and oxygen crossover, easy conformation to form a membrane electrode assembly (MEA), scalable and with competitive cost.

 Activity #3) Synthesis and physicochemical characterization of electrocatalysts, aiming the preparation via eco-sustainable protocols of novel noble metal-free materials/composites with electrocatalytic properties for the Oxygen Evolution Reaction / Oxygen Reduction Reaction and Hydrogen Evolution Reaction / Hydrogen Oidation Reaction with the final goal of producing high surface, bifunctional, high performance electrocatalysts, and scale-up of those with best electrocatalytic performance.

 Activity #4) Electrical and electrochemical characterization of electrolytes and electrocatalysts, aiming the study of composition-structure-microstructure-properties relationships of electrolytes and electrocatalysts prepared in A2 and A3, providing the selection criteria for the materials to be used in subsequent tasks of MEA preparation and device integration (Activities #5 and #6).

 Activity #5) MEA design and fabrication, with the objective of achieving integration of the electrolytes and electrodes selected in Activity #4 into MEAs to be used in the devices to be tested in Activity #6.

 Activity #6) Device integration and modelling, which has the main objective of designing, constructing and optimizing a RFC and a URFC integrating the new developed innovative components, and defining the critical function parameters through a combined modelling/experimental approach.


Training of human resources 

In addition, the consortium will create a unique high quality education and training environment for 15 fellowships, generating in parallel employment 5 scientific jobs, enabling research professionals to pursue attractive careers and achieve international projection, thus encouraging the integration of young people into the employment market in fuel cell related areas. In this respect UniRCell will be particularly committed to foster gender equality. 


 Socio-economic impact

The UniRCell results will have important contributions to Societal Challenges. SECURE, CLEAN and EFFICIENT ENERGY is inherent to the URFC technology producing safe, carbon-free and efficient electricity through the virtuous cycle of hydrogen H2+1/2O2=H2O and an efficient utilization of renewable electricity (e.g. solar and wind). Hydrogen as the energy vector combined with renewable electricity virtually eliminates CO2 and other green-house gases emissions resulting from utilization of fossil fuels, with direct impact on CLIMATE ACTION and ENVIRONMENT.

UniRCell innovates by attempting to develop a totally new range of environmentally friendly fuel cell materials for the next generation of devices thus contributing to RESOURCE EFFICIENCY and the use of sustainable RAW MATERIALS. It will also contribute for a SMARTER, GREEN and INTEGRATED TRANSPORT by developing fuel cell technologies, which are the main option to provide electrical energy for the second generation of electrical and hybrid vehicles. Moreover, fuel cells have been suggested and effectively tested as a valid option to feed auxiliary power units for other transportation vehicles, such as planes, trains and boats. 

Lastly, UniRCell responds to three key leading sectors where the country has potential and strength to become highly competitive: ENERGY, RAW-MATERIALS and MATERIALS, and TECHNOLOGIES OF PRODUCTION and PROCESS INDUSTRIES. The URFC prototype will allow overcoming wind (and solar) intermittency, the main drawback of renewable energy sources, by enabling the storage of excess wind energy produced at peak production times and its subsequent use at low production periods thus promoting Energy efficiency and final use of renewable energies and optimization of energy transport and storage. UniRCell is also concentrated on the application of advanced technologies to design, synthesize, characterize and optimize novel electrolytes and electrocatalysts, including scale-up production by means of state-of-the-art technologies in direct collaboration with local companies (Innovcat, Fluidinova and Adventech). Moreover, UniRCell promotes greener and more efficient production processes to the fabrication and optimization of RFC and URFC integrating bio-based materials. The activities of UniRCell consortium also match the regional strategies set by the Central and North regions of Portugal, namely the development processes, materials and sustainable systems and by developing industries associated with broad spectrum technologies (Key Enabling Technologies), including nanotechnology and materials combining the existence of capacities and scientific and technological infrastructure, and relevant user sectors.