How an Irish researcher aims to change our future using hydrogen fuel


3 Jan 20191.81k Views

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Dr Rory Monaghan of NUI Galway and the EU GenComm project is hoping to use waste renewable energy electricity to create hydrogen fuel.

After completing his mechanical engineering degree at NUI Galway in 2002, Dr Rory Monaghan travelled to MIT to complete a master’s and PhD in hydrogen fuel cells as well as carbon capture and storage.

After six years there, he returned to Ireland to take a postdoctoral position at his alma mater, and in 2012 took up a position there as lecturer of energy systems engineering within mechanical engineering.

He also helps run the award-winning Galway energy-efficient car (Geec) project, with the aim of creating the most energy-efficient car possible.

Headshot of Dr Rory Monaghan

Dr Rory Monaghan. Image: NUI Galway

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Three key memories come to mind in my path to becoming a researcher. Lego and art were my passions as a kid, and I loved turning my drawings into physical creations. When I was six years old, my dad, who is an engineer, brought me a Technic Lego set from Sweden before anyone had seen one in mid-1980s Ireland!

After that, my brother – who also became an engineer – and I spent most of our free time building treehouses to stand up to the west-of-Ireland wind, and go-karts to survive a gravel driveway. We were engineering 24/7 without realising it!

Another key moment came after Junior Cert year, when my mum insisted I study chemistry for the Leaving Cert. I resisted at the time, but it was just as well I relented as virtually every piece of research I do now is underpinned by an understanding of chemistry.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Society’s burning of fossil fuels in the world’s power plants, engines and furnaces is far and away the biggest source of the greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere, and is destabilising Earth’s climate. My research team is working to understand and develop new fuels that are renewable and environmentally sustainable. We particularly focus on trying to transform unwanted waste from one process into valuable fuel for another.

We do this at many levels of depth and breadth, including: understanding the fundamental chemical processes at play when waste materials are transformed into renewable fuels, optimising engine performance to minimise pollutant emissions, designing nationwide networks to gather waste products, and upgrading them to fuels and distributing them to where they are needed.

We have recently started an exciting project called GenComm, which is funded by the European Union’s Interreg programme, on converting a totally different form of waste into a new type of fuel.

Waste occurs in renewable electricity produced by wind farms when the wind is blowing, but at a time when people don’t need electricity. Since it is very difficult to store large amounts of electricity for long periods of time, this resource is typically wasted.

GenComm will take this otherwise wasted electricity and use it to produce hydrogen, which is an exciting energy carrier of the future. Hydrogen can be used to fuel heavy vehicles like trucks and buses, and can also be injected into the natural gas network so that renewable fuels can be piped directly to people’s homes.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My team’s work is important because of the sheer scale of the environmental and energy challenges that Ireland, Europe and the world face. Recently, the IPCC warned that we have about a decade left to take drastic action before the world is locked into the two degrees Celsius global average temperature increase that signals widespread climate destabilisation. For Ireland, this could mean more droughts in summer and more floods in winter. It would also put our major cities, all of which are on the coast, at risk from rising sea level.

Even if we disregard the health of the environment and humans, continuing to burn fossil fuels at the rate we do now does not make economic sense. Ireland imports over four-fifths of the fuel we use, at an annual cost of over €4bn. The fact that the UK supplies the vast majority of this – and there is still no Brexit deal in sight – should be a big worry for policymakers.

When you include the fact that my research team studies the use of waste residues and waste electricity as clean-fuel building blocks, I really believe we are tackling a tough and worthwhile task.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Most of the work my team does, from individual fuel particles to entire energy networks, is in cooperation with Irish or international industry.

For example, we are working with Arigna Fuels, a family-run Irish company from Roscommon that is creating a low-emissions, renewable, solid fuel for home heating.

For a number of years, we have been working with German engineering giant Siemens to perfect computer models that help power generators minimise emissions from power plants that burn alternative fuels, or need to switch on and off quickly to accommodate variable amounts of wind power.

We also work with Gas Networks Ireland to assess the quantity of renewable replacements for natural gas that can be sourced in Ireland and injected into the grid. This is a huge opportunity for Ireland, as we are now beginning to realise that replacing fossil fuels in power generation may well be the easy part.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

In common with researchers in many fields in Ireland, finding funding to support and grow my research team is my biggest challenge. Ireland does not fund its universities or researchers to the same extent as other countries. We have high student-staff ratios at Irish universities, which makes it difficult to carve out the necessary time for research. Energy decarbonisation is a relatively new addition to the Government’s research prioritisation, but we are now seeing a real willingness from the public to act.

There needs to be what we call a ‘just transition’ from our current energy system to a decarbonised future that manages these costs and adjustments fairly across society.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

A huge misconception is that energy and electricity are the same thing! Electricity is one useful form of energy, but it currently only accounts for one-fifth of the total energy we use each year in Ireland. We will soon realise that decarbonising our electricity supply, while difficult, is more straightforward than decarbonising the other 80pc of energy use, which is mostly in the form of transportation and heating fuel.

A second major misconception is that hydrogen is an especially dangerous substance. Much of this fear stems from partial awareness of two things: the Hindenburg disaster and the hydrogen bomb. The Hindenburg was a hydrogen-filled airship (really called a dirigible or a zeppelin) that spectacularly and fatally caught fire on film in 1937. It has since been shown that hydrogen was not responsible for the Hindenburg fire. In fact, hydrogen is much safer than everyday fuels like petrol or diesel.

Hydrogen bombs (or thermonuclear devices) are the most destructive weapons ever devised by humankind. The good news is that the conditions needed to create a hydrogen bomb are impossible to create accidentally!

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Given the need to move beyond decarbonisation of electricity generation and electrification of light-duty vehicles, I think we need to move towards deeper integration of our entire energy system and away from our segregated power, transport and heating sectors.

We need to turn our research attention to design, demonstration and implementation of the technical, economic and policy solutions that this decarbonised future requires. Central to all of this are energy citizens, who will not only consume, but produce energy as well. Developing groundbreaking technologies in the absence of informed and engaged energy citizens would severely limit the impact of our research.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.