Has The Transition From Fossil Fuel to Hydrogen Economy Finally Begun?

Yesterday was a highlight. My First Ride in a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car
The first time for one of my business trip I drove a hydrogen propelled fuel cell car. A Hyundai ix35.

Dr. Artur Braun filling Hyundai ix35 fuel cell car with hydrogen at the COOP pronto gas station in Hunzenschwil, Switzerland.

Since 2008, major part of my scientific activity was the production of solar hydrogen in photo electrochemical cells. Together with my group members and our collaborators worldwide we have run experiments, done investigations, wrote research proposals to get project funding, supervised PhD theses, MSc theses and BSc theses for this topic, wrote publications, participated in and spoke on conferences, organised conferences and so on, and so on.

For almost 10 years I, we, an entire community worldwide which has demonstrated and experienced an explosion rate growth, had a great time for a new technology for renewable energy production. I felt the time is coming that this solar hydrogen technology is going to make it into the market.

Lately, my organisation has built a hydrogen pumping station where you can fill your car with hydrogen, provided it feeds on hydrogen. And more recently, a major grocery retail store chain in Switzerland, the COOP company established a hydrogen filling station at one of their many COOP pronto gas stations in Hunzenschwil in the Canton of Aargau. It came in the news, in the TV, in the internet.

Hyundai ix35 at the COOP pronto gas station hydrogen filling terminal in Hunzenschwil, Switzerland.

On 10 November 2016 I participated as a founding member in the inauguration of the Daylight Academy, a new institution funded by the VELUX Stiftung in Switzerland. The foundation promotes the use of daylight for humankind. The inauguration ceremony took place at the WSL, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf.

For my business travels in Switzerland I frequently use the vehicles of my employer’s car pool. I did so for the travel to the inauguration to Birmensdorf WSL, because on the next day I would have another very early ride to EPFL in Lausanne. On my way back at night from the Daylight Academy inauguration I gave my colleague Dr. Rudolf Struis from Paul Scherrer Institute a ride to the train station. He had also participated in the inauguration workshop and ceremony. In the car we discussed many things, also our work on environmental sustainability and the use of car pooling. Then it popped up in my memory that my employer had recently acquired a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle from Hyundai. So I told him that my next booking of a vehicle from the car pool would be the fuel cell car.

This was exactly yesterday on the 16 December where I visited him and two of his colleagues for a project discussion on a synchrotron experiment on dye sensitised solar cells which we are planning for.

The fuel cell car was a spacious sports utility vehicle which reminded me of my 2001 Grand Jeep Cherokee. But the Hyundai appeared to me more speedy. I did not feel the heavy weight which I was used from the Jeep. Push the gas pedal and the fuel cell car speeds of. It had automatic transmission and was easy to use. Actually, I did not really notice this was a fuel cell car when driving it. It felt like any normal car.

One problem at this time is that there are not many hydrogen gas stations. In Switzerland there is one at Empa in Dübendorf by Zürich. And the one at COOP in Hunzenschwil. There was one near Lac Le Man which is currently being moved to Neuchatel. And there is a research hydrogen station in Martigny operated by EPFL. That’s about it at this time.

Have we finally arrived at the fuel cell vehicle age?

Has The Transition From Fossil Fuel to Hydrogen Economy Finally Begun?

When I was Physics student in Aachen, some of my Korean friends studied Maschinenbau, some of them were in the groups of Prof. Franz Pischinger, an internationally renown Professor for combustion engine technology.

When I moved to Switzerland for my doctoral thesis, I entered the field of electrochemistry. My PhD thesis research project was funded by the Swiss Priority Program on Materials Research and was supposed to produce an electrochemical double layer capacitor, a “Supercapacitor” to be used in electric locomotive trains. So I worked in a project on alternative energy for mobility applications with Dr. Rüdiger Katz, my supervisor.

In 1998 or 1999, I do not remember exactly anymore, I joined a brainstorming led by ETH Professor and PSI Director Meinrad Eberle, where a project on fuel cell vehicles had been discussed. While Prof. Eberle was known as a hardcore automotive combustion engineer, he listened to the various minds in the brainstorming and in the end basically said “OK, then let’s go for the fuel cell car project”. I thought for a classical combustion engine guy like Eberle this would be a big move.

I knew about the fuel cell for automotive applications since I joined PSI as a PhD student in 1996. I shared my office with Dr. Felix Büchi, a fuel cell stack expert and Dr. Hans-Peter Brack, a polymer membrane expert. On a side note, I want to acknowledge that learned a lot from them during my three years at PSI.

So, anyway – the big expectations and frequent doubts over fuel cell cars that I witnessed in the late 90s – here it is, the fuel cell car which runs on hydrogen. I drove it.

Where does the hydrogen for the fuel cell cars come from?

Most of the hydrogen produced by chemical industry is made from water vapour guided over hot coal. The water-gas-shift reaction makes that the water H2O molecule is split into hydrogen gas and oxygen, the latter combines with the coal to carbon monoxide CO, a toxic gas. This process can be called thermolysis. So, this hydrogen is won from fossil fuels.

The water can also be split (oxidised) and converted to hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. The electric power necessary for this process can be taken from the electricity grid. The electricity can be produced from coal and gas power plants, from nuclear power plants, from wind and maritime tide power plants and also from photovoltaic – from solar energy. The exhaust of a fuel cell car is only water vapour.

The electric power for the hydrogen I pumped at COOP pronto in Hunzenschwil comes directly from a Swiss mountain water power plant. So this hydrogen comes from renewable energy. In contrast, the combustion engine cars with imported fossil fuel, which produces as exhaust water, carbon dioxide and possible other reaction products, such as the NOx.




Curiosity and the freedom to doubt.

  • To many Physicists, Richard P. Feynman is either known as the Nobel Laureate who shared his prize with Julian Schwinger about some mathematical problems in quantumelectrodynamics and how to solve them – with a trick.
  • Or they know Feynman as the author of the Feynman Lectures in Physics, I think three books on Experimental Physics which were even recommended for the Theoretical Physics course at my alma mater.

Or they know Feynman for both.

  • I know Feynman particularly for the other books – about him. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Six not so easy pieces. Six easy pieces. What do you care what other people think? …

On the night of the 14 August 2015 I came across a YouTube video with Bertrand Piccard, where he gave a public lecture on Zeitgeist Americas 2013:

Piccard, who is known for a number of pioneering which I would call “aeronautical stunts”, starts out in his lecture with a claim, a statement which he had read at the entrance to his auditorium. It’s being claimed there:

Everyone is looking for new things all the time.

Piccard then comments on this quote:

I’m not sure it’s true. I believe that maybe here in this room we are all looking for new things. We are curious. And actually we find our balance into the unknown. But so many people in life don’t trust life at all. So many people are afraid of the unknown. Afraid of the doubts. Afraid of the question marks. So what do they do? They try to find completely other tools than curiosity. They try to find control, power, speed. Because this helps them to fight against the doubt and the question marks. This helps them to fight against the uncertainty, against the “changeants”. Against everything that can threaten their comfort zone. So what I love so much in ballooning actually is the fact that when you fly a balloon you learn exactly the other things, exactly the opposite, exactly the contrary. You learn to have – no power. Because you have no engine. You learn to have no control, because you’re pushed by the wind. …”

Now this is very interesting, the distinction between a) people who are curious and in there find their balance, b) and those people who are scared of doubts and questions and rather seek power and control for their balance.

When I heard these words from Piccard, I was then reminded of Feynman who elaborated on the “Meaning of it all” and “The Freedom to doubt”.

Let me quote (http://laserstars.org/bio/Feynman.html) here Richard Feynman from the book “What do you care what other people think?:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure – that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — and not to be sure. 

And this reminds me of an opinion brought forward by John F. Kennedy in his well known speechThe President and the Press“, where Kennedy says

No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

Obviously, the principle of doubt (controversy) which is known to scientists as a painful evolution (Galileo Galilei) has made it also into modern politics, at least by Kennedy, and to at least one ancient lawmaker (Solon), if you read on Kennedy’s speech.

Whereas in law making and in politics, doubt could be considered a necessary systemic reflex against unilateralism and totalitarianism, in science I believe it could have a true academic origin, this is the curiosity.

Coming back to Piccard’s speech, he says there is two sorts of people, the ones who are curious, I would say the ones who seek questions, rather than answers. And then there is the other class of people, those who  cannot stand questions and won’t rest until they have an answer. The latter are the ones who need control over things, the ones who are not apt to the idea of freedom.

Can the aforementioned systemic reflex of doubt against unilateralism still be considered as originating from the same field like the freedom to doubt in scientific affairs?

Acknowledge the Acknowledgement

Recently I received a manuscript draft from my project collaborator with my name on the author list. In my capacity as co-PI I was happy to glance over another manuscript for a soon to be finished project . But as I lately have been caught up with many extra work, I had no time to deeper engage with this manuscript, and asked my young collaborator that she should take me off the author list. She then reminded me of my status as co-PI in the project and my past contributions which led to the making of that very paper, thus justifying my authorship. But I had no time for the extra work on this paper and felt I should do so if I wanted to warrant co-authorship.

In the end, I asked her that she should just mention me in the Acknowledgement, together with the supervisor of a young visiting researcher from another country. This postdoc had joined my group for some months and had had the opportunity to work in the aforementioned project and also work on the paper and thus gain co-authorship. Looking at it from this perspective, I was happy that the visiting postdoc’s supervisor in the other country and I could now document our new and informal collaboration in this Acknowledgment, along with the travel grant number of the visiting postdoc.

Few days later, by coincidence, I met on our campus a colleague who had been working with a former Phd student in my group over several years on an informal project which had made it to a manuscript draft, but not yet to a publication. As I had been following and peeking over the progress of this work for such a long time, I told my colleague I was happy that the publication would now materialize, and he said we should meet altogether soon to finalize details and I then should become co-author of that paper. I replied with a “… no – that’s not necessary, I am happy to be mentioned in the Acknowledgement”, and after a short verbal struggle with my dear colleague I begged him “Acknowledge the Acknowledgement”.

Being co-author of as many high profile publications as possible is important for a career in science. This bears certainly the potential of abuse, such as a claimed authorship, where no authorship is due. This is why organizations like the National Science Foundation, the German, the Swiss and the European Science and Research Foundations and also the ACS provide rules and ethical guidelines about what constitutes an authorship for a publication.

Certainly we want to bring in ourselves in the scientific work and in the publication as much as possible. But as life has limits of various kinds, we may end up in an Acknowledgement, which unfortunately is not always valued by our employer, funding agencies, professional organisations, search committees and the like. The Acknowledgement is not really part of the performance metrics these days, except maybe for the funding project number.

Therefore, I would like to urge everybody to responsible look into a list of authors and co-authors of a publication, and also in the Acknowledgement. The contribution to a project and a publication can be important, can be material, can be even critical, and still formally not satisfy the criteria for authorship. Yet, this important your contribution should be acknowledged by your peer – up to the hierarchy – with a serious and well-deserved credit. In short, acknowledge the Acknowledgement.

Nachrichten aus der Chemie: “Keine Experimente!”

Können die Fachhochschulen den Universitäten bald den Rang ablaufen? Eventuell sogar als intellektuelle Zentren?

Das wäre eine Überraschung, denn Fachhochschulen bilden Experten aus, die sich fachspezifisch äußern, wenn sie angefragt werden.

Intellektuelle hingegen nehmen ungefragt Stellung zu gesellschaftsrelevanten Themen. Das traut man nur Universitäten zu.

Jüngst störte ein Chemieprofessor der (Fach-) Hochschule Merseburg eine Eröffnungsrede der Bundeskanzlerin nach 68er Manier lautstark und mit Transparent mit der Forderung “Keine Experimente!”.

Das gleiche Motto, mit dem Kanzler Adenauer 10 Jahre vor den Studentenrevolten die absolute Mehrheit für seine Partei eingefahren hatte.

Da die Majestätsbeleidigung in der Bundesrepublik nicht strafbewehrt ist, wurde der Professor nicht von der Polizei abgeführt, aber immerhin doch vom Saalschutz hinauseskortiert.

Damit kann die Hochschule Merseburg, die sich ansonsten auf die Vermittlung von Schlüsselqualifikationen beschränkt, nun einen richtigen Dissidenten zu ihren Fakultätsmitgliedern zählen.

Es scheint aber, dass der Hochschule noch die Kragenweite für einen solchen intellektuellen Aufstieg fehlt. Sie distanzierte sich von ihrem Professor und stellte disziplinarische Vorüberlegungen an.

Als der Schreck in Merseburg nachgelassen und der Verstand wieder eingesetzt hatte, entschied man, die Angelegenheit auf sich beruhen zu lassen.

Auf dem Sportplatz

This summer I’m joining my wife on her sports project, which includes running 10 km track – every day.

While I prefer doing the 10 km cross country (admitted – I have a lot of pain after that), rather than on a sports ground in endless circles, I took joy in seeing that in the evening more and more people come to the well equipped public open sports ground and do there all kinds of exercises.

I spotted one guy who arrived with his bike and drove to one remote angle and did his gymnastics and then exercised his tricks with a soccer ball. He was all by himself, no other guy involved.

40 years ago in my village in Germany – when you went to the soccer field about a mile away – you always could meet at least one people what was playing there with a soccer ball. So for sure when you went there, you could team up and play. And I know it was like that everywhere in Germany, and likely all across Europe.

In the years after 2000, I noticed this is not anymore the case. Boys are not playing soccer anymore outside. They have other interests.

So, I felt back in good times when someone showed up on the soccer field with a ball just like that last week.

I also noticed three guys together on track, one of which was heavy overweight, whereas the two others were fit. All in their mid 20s. It seemed like the two fit ones were coaching the overweight one to make sure he was doing his tracks round without interruption. And they succeeded with it. Later I found they must have been doing also boxing because they had the equipment – at least the two fit ones. Seems the overweight one had two very good friends taking care of him and his exercises.

Guessing from their language, they might have come from Brazil … .

Did you have a lab at home ?

During my times in the U.S. – I used to live there for more than six years – I met and worked with countless people from Asia. Very kind people from China, Korea, few Japanese. At some point I wondered whether they had owned a lab at their home when they were kids.

I asked my parents for my first chemistry kit from Kosmos at the age of 11 or 12, I think. Chemie2000. The following year I got the Kosmos C1, and later Kosmos C2. In between I purchased Kosmos’ electronics kits and also one of their computer kits, plus a very tiny bio kit with nauplius crabs (Pl. nauplii). At the pharmacy store in the neighbour village I was a well known customer, and the owner sold me stuff which I believe, nowadays, he was not really allowed to sell me, even back then in liberal times.

Also I visited my neighbours quite often. They were radio amateurs and fixed and build all kinds of electronics. Radios, TVs, stereo HiFi stuff. I remember them playing Supermax’ Camillo. They also had a computer ** in the mid 70s ! ** which had a magnetic tape cassette as storage medium.  None of them had college training, but the two brothers were geniuses and made their money with electronics. They shared with me a lot of hardware and brain ware. I owe them a lot.

I had my lab at my parents’ attic.

So, did my colleagues have a lab? Somehow I have the prejudice that my colleagues from Asia did not have a lab at home. Would be great if I got some info from people from Asia who had their own lab when they were kids. In recent years I asked some of my colleagues from Asia that I still work together with, and it seems they do not have this culture of playing as boys (or girls) around with science stuff. Times may have changed. I’m curious.

So, last month I was in the Netherlands at a conference on biosolar cells. Near the famous life science city of Wageningen. The City of Life Sciences. It was sort of a program meeting where foreigners were invited as external experts and speakers and so on. I was very impressed. I liked the conference a lot. There was a great spirit all around.

On my last day I was in the conference hotel in the Cafe and doing my stuff with my laptops over a beer. Some of the colleagues from the conference were sitting together on a neighbouring table and becoming loud over some educational issues. They were all professors. From NL, UK, USA, Finland. I could not avoid noticing their topic, ad then turned to them and asked them “Please, tell me, who of you had a lab at home when you were a kid? Raise your hand!” 3 out of 4 (the male people) raised their hands and confirmed they had had their own labs at home as kids. Well, this was a nice surprise. Only the female participant said she had not had a lab a home. Well anyway it was good to see that these colleagues in majority had started out in science as young kids.

(just few days ago I learnt by sheer coincidence that a high profile collaborator of mine, one of the better Chemists in Switzerland, got a chemistry kit as kid from his parents…)

I am not going to be sexist here. I had a girl in my research group two years ago, a Physiklaborantin apprentice, and at some time I asked her “do you know how to work with a soldering tool?“. And she replied yes, she knew how to do soldering. She had learnt it prior to her formal college training at home, she said. I was impressed and happy to see that people still at tho digital age do some practical stuff at home.

So, to get back to Asia. I know very well that parents from Asia value academic education a lot and invest a lot of money and other efforts for the education of their children. More so than I am used to see in Europe.

Would be interesting to know if there are some cultural patterns about how raising kids in Asia, Europe, United States in terms of formal education.

Doing class work and curriculum is not the same like doing your own way and try to find things out by yourself.

The pleasure of finding things out was my driving force in doing all this science and tech stuff. It was not imposed by my parents or other people. Later I was reminded that Richard P. Feynman seemed to have grown up similar. He, too, said he had operated a lab at home when he was a young kid in Long Island …

Global language


Today I was pointed to a landmark in South Korea, heavy stones, monoliths piled up like in Stonehenge, Great Britain. The Korean word for that is “dol” and means basically rock or stone. The German word for big stones which are arranged in a tumb, grave stones, are called “Dolmen”. The “Dolomiten” is the alpine mountains in the northern Italy part in Tyrol.

I am struck by the similarity of the Korean word “dol” for stone and its European counter parts which sound similar. There many such similarities in Asian and European languages.

Last year on my way from Arizona to New Mexico I chose to pass Sedona and the Coconino area. Above Oak Creek Canyon there was a resting place at the highway with scenic view. And a group of native americans, “indians” were trying to sell their jewellery there. At the lower end of the row of salesmen and tribesmen was one single man who had a much darker skin and looked way different from the other tribes people. He was selling T-shirts and tried to lure me into a conversation – and eventually in a deal. It seemed he was quite literate about languages and anthropology and the spread of language. He knew that Lithuanian language bears similarities with the Indian sanskrit and  lectured me over this.