Developing a non-polluting, efficient, accessible, compact and lightweight hydrogen fuel cell energy pack

Prof. Idit Avrahami

Department of Mechanical Engineering

Towards the end of a pleasurable day of biking in nature, miles from civilization, it’s getting dark and you could use some help with the uphill effort. But your bicycle battery is empty, and your cellphone’s battery is almost finished. You might get lost without the help of a navigation app. Fortunately, you brought along your portable hydrogen fuel cell. Just mix a bit of powder with water in the device, plug in your recharger and you are good to go for about 8 more hours!
“I deeply believe that close connection with students is the key to success.”
Professor Idit Avrahami

Professor Idit Avrahami has achieved the heights of her profession not only by virtue of her long and impressive list of research achievements, but by a deep commitment to her students and promoting science and technology to youngsters. After completing her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Technion and a brief period working in the plastics industry, she earned master’s and doctorate degrees at Tel Aviv University in Biomedical Engineering, focusing on cardiovascular systems. Prior to joining the newly established Department of Medical Engineering at Afeka College of Engineering, she did post-doctorate research at the Technion and at California Institute of Technology. After joining the faculty of Mechanical Engineering at Ariel University in 2011 she was appointed head of department in 2013, where she established the track for Energy and Mechanical Studies. She is currently the Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.

Professor Idit Avrahami’s main professional interests are threefold:

Energy

Although the first hydrogen fuel cells were invented in early 19th century, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that their use for running large vehicles began to be tested, when Chrysler tried to develop hydrogen-powered electric cars. Despite the tremendous amount of funding for the “millennium cell”, it was not successful because it was economically impractical to mass produce hydrogen cars and develop the necessary infrastructure.

Professor Avrahami teamed up with Professor Alex Schechter from the Department of Chemical Sciences to develop a new prototype for a high energy density generator that produces hydrogen gas on demand to PEM fuel-cells by hydrolysis of a chemical reaction of a reactive hydride chemical powder with water (H2O).

In their system, one kilogram of reactive powder mixed with water releases a large volume of hydrogen that can produce the equivalent output of a 5 kg battery. The device is safer and more efficient than conventional hydrogen storage solutions using high pressure tanks or balloons that are not only highly flammable, but whose weight accounts for about 98% of the entire load, with the weight of the hydrogen accounting for only about 2%. Although tanks with extremely high pressure of 700 atm can reach up to 4%, they may entail safety issues, making them unsuitable for portable devices.

Professor Avrahami explains, “Our solution is much lighter. In our design, about 7% of the weight is the actual hydrogen. The size of the container is about 750 ml, less than a quart, giving our design the advantage of being compact and convenient for various applications. Adding more powder to the generator produces more energy. Forty grams of powder yields about 30W power, or 7.5 hours of energy. You can plug in your cell phone or laptop to recharge them overnight. We project that the same technology will also be able to recharge electric bicycles for hikers in the field or for boating equipment at sea.”

One of the more interesting projected applications is for aviation, specifically for drones, which are currently limited as far as the distance they can fly due to the weight they must carry. Companies like Amazon are trying to develop drones for package delivery, but the weight of the batteries that keep drones airborne limits their usage. If the weight is significantly lessened, the weight of the payload can be increased. Professor Avrahami and her team have also received a grant from the Ministry of Energy for developing methods to further reduce the weight of the device and improve its efficiency for aviation applications.

Beyond determining what specific compounds of powder to mix with water to power the device, the research team worked on developing the controls needed. “I guess we are a sort of hydrogen chefs. We mix a bit of reactive powder with water to create electricity.” The powder is as safe and environmental-friendly as laundry detergent. It is relatively inexpensive, non-polluting, non-toxic and user-friendly. To optimize the process, a delicate control of temperature, pressure, flow rate and solution concentration is required. The fuel cell extracts oxygen from the air which reacts with the hydrogen supplied by the chemical reaction of the water with the powder to produce electricity.”

The device has been patented, and commercial contacts are underway through Ariel University’s technology transfer office, Ariel Scientific Innovations.

Prototype of the portable hydrogen generator
Prototype of the portable hydrogen generator

Biomedical engineering for cardio-vascular devices

Professor Avrahami started out as a student of mechanical engineering at the Technion and continued to graduate studies in biomedical engineering at Tel Aviv University. Over the years, she has continued her research in this field.

She recently supervised students from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, in collaboration with Prof. Ran Kornowski, Dr. Tuvia Ben-Gal and Dr. Ilan Marcuschamer from the Rabin Medical Center, to develop an innovative ventricle assist device (VAD) to augment or fully replace cardiac function in patients with acute heart failure in need of short-term left ventricle assistance. This VAD offers an advantage over existing VADs because of its ability to reduce thrombosis and hemolysis that are attributed to the destruction of blood cells that often occurs as a result of VAD usage. Their improved design is showing promising results in laboratory models. Funding for this 3-year project comes from the Ministry of Science.

Prototype of the miniature percotaneous ventricle assist device
A prototype of the miniature percotaneous ventricle assist device (pLVAD) developed at the Ariel Biomedical Center. Improved device design helps prevent the complications of hemolysis and thrombosis.

Education

Professor Avrahami’s enthusiasm for science, technology and research is equaled only by her passion to inspire young children and students to enquire and turn their inborn curiosity into concrete projects that implement the principles of science and technology. She is an active advocate for establishing STEAM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) in schools and educational settings around the country.

Prof. Avrahami has also been involved for many years in technology education, particularly robotics and physics, in intermediate and high schools. “The period of the Corona virus has actually been very advantageous in this regard, particularly through gaming, which is a wonderful way of learning technology.”

Idit is very proud of a mentoring program she established on the Ariel University campus, in which 3rd year students help 1st year students adjust to university life. “It started out in Mechanical Engineering when I was head of the department and has spread to many other departments. It’s basically a forum for students to guide their younger peers in their first steps as students, for freshmen students to be able to express themselves, form study groups and practice academic skills and routines.”

Another program she is involved in is “Top Ariel”, a prestigious project designed for undergraduate students with outstanding achievements from all departments. Prof Avrahami is the academic director of the “Top-Ariel Research Track”, where students team up with faculty to conduct lab research. In periodic meetings, multidisciplinary groups of students discuss research management and meet with researchers from various fields.

She is particularly proud of a self-help program she started to encourage women to study engineering. “Unfortunately, although there has been a very slight rise in the number of women enrolling in the various engineering disciplines, the numbers are still small – running about 5%-10%. This might be because our target community is still quite conservative. Many female students enroll in academic programs after serving in National Service, where they get very little exposure to the idea of studying engineering. We are happy to see young women that join the faculty and hope that more women will understand that there’s really no reason not to go into engineering professions. I believe it’s all a matter of branding and marketing.”

Prof. Avrahami was recently selected as one of the 10 Most Inspiring Lecturers by the National Student Union from among Israel’s 6,000 academic lecturers for the 2019-2020 academic year. “To me, this is definitely one of the most important awards I could wish for,” says Prof. Avrahami.

Professor Idit Avrahami
Professor Idit Avrahami, recipient of the National Student Union’s 2019-2020 Most Inspiring Lecturers award
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