Essential Molecules Challenge: Research Competition Names Inaugural Winners

Jan. 16, 2017
“Essential Molecules Challenge” picks three projects for prizes and corporate collaboration

Air Liquide Group, Paris, has announced the first winners of its recently launched annual competition called the Essential Molecules Challenge. The jury for the inaugural challenge selected three projects from a total of 130 scientific proposals submitted by academic teams, R&D departments and start-ups from 25 countries.

The competition focuses on research related to gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and provides a way for the company to reinforce its focus on science for accelerating innovation, says Air Liquide.

For each project, the winner will receive an award of €50,000 ($52,210) in recognition of the project’s originality in offering an innovative solution promoting energy and environmental transition.

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In addition, Air Liquide will fund up to €1.5 million ($1.57 million) in collaborations with the winners to further develop their scientific proposals and transform them into innovative market technologies.

The first winner is Kevin Sivula, professor at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, for the project, “Sunny H2 in a bottle,” or how to produce hydrogen from water using solar energy.

The project’s main objective is to produce H2 without greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Further research in collaboration with Air Liquide aims to develop robust new H2 production processes with near-zero CO2 emissions to contribute to energy and ecological transition; and evaluate photoelectrochemical (PEC) technology using water as feedstock and solar energy to produce decarbonized H2.

PEC offers a direct approach with engineering simplicity gained by using a single module to absorb light and produce hydrogen by electrolysis. In a PEC system, the surface absorbing the sunlight is equal to the surface where the electrolysis reaction takes place. A PEC system integrating both light absorption and water splitting is compact and scalable, therefore capital expenditures also should be reduced.

Susumu Kitagawa, professor at Kyoto University, and Ryotaro Matsuda, professor at Nagoya University in Japan, won for “Small molecules in my pocket,” or how to identify sponge materials for high-density storage and safe supply of gases.

The researchers and Air Liquide will now focus on developing metal organic framework porous materials to achieve gas storage at low pressure compared to current compressed gas cylinders (20 MPa).

“Such materials acting like sponges can safely capture, store and release molecules at a higher capacity and energy efficiency, with the possibility to offer friendly usage. Small, light and customer-designed shaped bottles can be developed by using these materials for gas storage,” notes Olivier Letessier, Air Liquide R&D vice president, who also chaired the challenge’s jury.

Jean-Michel Savéant, Marc Robert and Cyrille Costentin, professors at Paris-Diderot University and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France, won for their project “CO2, give back your O2,” or how to produce oxygen and carbon monoxide from CO2 in a sustainable way.

The project will contribute to air quality by reducing GHG emissions and provide cleaner industry by getting value from CO2, says Letessier. The next step is to develop a clear vision of the technical and economical potential of splitting CO2 into CO and O2 via an electrocatalysis route.

The collaboration also will study catalysts, electrodes and operating conditions for optimized electrolysis cell set-up and develop a high-durability and high-energy efficiency electrolyzer for CO2 splitting into CO and O2 using earth-abundant materials.

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