The story behind FreeHydroCells

In this blog post Coordinator and Lead PI of FreeHydroCells, Dr Ailbe Ó Manacháin, tells us the background story to the project becoming successfully funded under Horizon Europe.

The “idea” behind FreeHydroCells came about by many parts and over many years, I believe, so it is impossible to pinpoint its emergence to any one event in time. It is more the amalgamation of knowledge, scientific progress, material understanding, team effort and the increasing development and leveraging of critical capability and collaboration that eventually came together into an initial “fuzzy idea” for an application in water splitting for hydrogen generation. In this context, I will try to map out the fuzzy pathway to the FreeHydroCells idea both in background and timeline…

In 2006-2007, Intel Corporation introduced the “high-k/metal-gate process” to commercial manufacturing Complimentary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor (CMOS) technology and our group at UCC intensified the investigation of oxides on silicon, particularly high-k dielectrics as future alternative transistor gate oxides to silicon dioxide in CMOS. This work initially started on silicon semiconducting substrates, but within a year or two, our group under Prof Paul K. Hurley began to look at alternative, higher mobility semiconductors, with a strong focus on III-V semiconductor materials. Soon after, we were invited to work and publish with the prestigious and select team of Prof Kelin Kuhn of Intel Corporation’s Components Research Division in the USA. Prof Kuhn is a world expert in Advanced Device Technology, an IEEE Fellow, an Intel Corporation Fellow, and a Professor at Oregon State University and Cornell University. Prof Kuhn and her colleagues actually led the S&T advancement and commercial introduction of the aforementioned “high-k/metal-gate process” – an extremely significant event in electronic technology development. By 2011 and the period soon after, our group under the lead of Prof Hurley had received a prestigious International Award for achievement from Intel Corporation, and around then we were also working with many other experts in the field, such as IBM (Zurich & USA), Stanford University, University of Texas at Dallas, and the SINANO Institute members.

While not directly related to the “idea” as such, moving to investigate alternative novel semiconductors was an important shift in our strategic research direction, as alternative novel semiconductors are also key for emerging renewable energy applications and solutions, including water splitting for green hydrogen production.

FreeHydroCells may not have emerged at all had we not taken this path. Therefore, I consider this activity as phase 1(A) of the FreeHydroCells “idea” background. Around 2014-2015, our group began to explore other emerging alternative and novel semiconductor materials, such as wide bandgap Transparent Conductive Oxides (TCOs) and novel materials based on emerging graphene (crystalline layered carbon) and related two-dimensional (2D) materials, also known as Transition Metal Dichalcogenides (TMDs). The need for a controllable bandgap led to a rapid surge in TMD research, and given the urgency to investigate, I was asked by Professor Hurley to refocus a significant part of my time on exploratory investigations of TMDs, with some success in the past 8-9 years. Most of this work was funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and/or Intel Corporation directly. I consider this activity on mostly TMDs as phase 1(B) of the FreeHydroCells “idea” background.

In 2011-2012 (and running in parallel to phase 1 already described), our group contributed towards a successfully-supported research proposal called RENEW. This was a joint US-Ireland, SFI-NSF (the USA’s National Science Foundation) project plan with Stanford University and others to look at the oxidation reaction parts of the redox reactions during the production of green hydrogen fuel from water splitting (H2 from H2O). The RENEW project ran between 2012 and 2017.

This was the first time really I had applied my knowledge, expertise and experience in materials and devices to renewable energy generation and storage applications per se, although I had been working on energy consumption reduction goals in nanoelectronics for a significant period of time prior to this project, with some success. 

I found myself really interested in the topic of renewable energy harvesting and renewable energy storage, but unfortunately for me at the time, the nature of the RENEW project – and because of my other existing commitments – I was only able to spend a small amount of time working on RENEW (< 10 %), and only on fringe aspects. The RENEW project was superseded by a similarly funded project called EMERALD (2017-2023), which was tasked essentially with continuing the water splitting advances for hydrogen that had been made in the RENEW project. My involvement in EMERALD has been substantially more than in RENEW and we have achieved some exciting progress with Stanford University and others. These results are presently under peer-review. It is through these two projects that I gained a significant knowledge and expertise in photoelectrochemical systems, state-of-the-art water-splitting materials, and in the complex requirements of photoanodes and photocathodes to solve the very difficult state-of-the-art challenges in these type of renewable energy hydrogen generation systems for solar energy conversion and storage. I consider this activity as phase 2 of the FreeHydroCells “idea” background.

So, phase 1 enabled me in terms of materials-devices-systems for novel semiconductors, and phase 2 enabled me in terms of materials-cells-systems for photoelectrochemical water splitting. In the ~2018-2021 period in particular, I had increasingly emerging ideas about TCO and TMD materials in novel cell/device systems for photoelectrochemical water splitting for green hydrogen production, so it is fair to say that the fuzzy path to the FreeHydroCells idea began to take focus during this period. I explored a number of potential ways to advance my increasing interest in renewable energy technology development. After further discussions in the 2020-2021 period, I began working on renewable energy applications full-time (projects TRANSLATE and NXTGENWOOD in particular, supported by the EU and SFI) as part of an extended team effort between Prof Hurley and I, and Prof Justin D. Holmes and his team, and it was only then that I could concentrate on refining the already emerged FreeHydroCells idea and start the development of an associated consortium and project plan that could potentially enable the idea, eventually leading to our successful proposal submission to Horizon Europe on 23 February 2022.

The FreeHydroCells project officially started on 1st November 2022 and will run until February 2026. To follow our progress, stay tuned for regular news posted here on our website, or subscribe to our Twitter or LinkedIn accounts

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