Prof. Alex Schechter
Prof. Alex Schechter and his team of researchers at the Fuel Cells and Electrochemistry Group are striving to develop unconventional sources of clean and renewable energy and make a significant contribution towards a sustainable clean energy economy.
“I consider finding solutions to the problem of CO2 emissions as much more than just publishing a good paper. It is my mission to find a game-changing solution.”
On a mission to find practical game-changing solutions to CO2 emissions
Millions of people around the world are concerned with the dangerous ill-effects of global warming caused by excessive CO2 emissions. Prof. Alex Schechter has devoted much of his career to finding practical solutions to these seemingly insurmountable problems. In his words, “I consider finding solutions to the problem of CO2 emissions as much more than just publishing a good paper. It is my mission to find a game-changing solution.”
Alex and his team at the Fuel Cells and Electrochemistry Group at Ariel University have won grants from agencies such as the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Industry to find ways of harnessing basic principles of chemistry to develop unconventional sources of clean and renewable energy. So far, the initial results of a double-sided, interdependent system are promising.
One such project involves the use of dimethyl ether (DME), a non-toxic gas commonly used as a propellant in aerosol spray containers. DME gas can be stored as a liquid at room temperature under mild pressure, and can be released as a gas to a fuel cell (a battery-like device) where it combines with oxygen to produce electricity with a smaller footprint of CO2 than combustion. DME affords a much higher output of energy than previously reported fuels (methanol, ethanol) and the use of Prof. Schechter’s patented catalysts results in much greater efficiency than any other material reported in the literature. Unlike the most widely known hydrogen fuel, DME is compact and easily transportable. It may be produced from a wide range of relatively inexpensive materials like methanol, methane or even organic waste and charcoal, with the advantage of low CO2 emissions and up to 300% higher fuel efficiency than gasoline fuel combustion. Drones using this kind of energy may run for 8 hours without refueling, for example, as compared to 30 minutes using conventional batteries. Prof. Schechter has already registered two world patents for unique and efficient catalysts that have far greater output than any other known materials under the same fuel cell operating conditions. The potential market is enormous with applications for products such as fuel cells for powering drones and electric vehicles and power backup for off-grid utilities.
Alex’s research group is conducting another ambitious project aimed at harnessing abundant atmospheric nitrogen to generate ammonia (NH3) that can be stored as a liquified fuel gas using only electricity (from a solar panel, for example), water and nitrogen. “I had the idea that instead of storing large quantities of ammonia on-site, we could use a chemical reaction to generate small amounts of ammonia locally, which would then be collected and converted into electricity in a fuel cell.”
Another related project involves the development of an ammonia-fed fuel cell. These two projects together constitute a non-polluting, closed system solution which removes nitrogen from the atmosphere, and then recycles it back into the atmosphere, without producing harmful CO2 emissions. The closed nitrogen-based system may have the potential of avoiding fossil carbon-based fuel economy towards reducing CO2 global emissions.
This sounds simpler than it is. One of the problems of converting nitrogen to ammonia is that nitrogen is one of the most stable elements known. It is almost totally inert due to the triple-bond molecular structure of N2. “In order to work with nitrogen, we have developed and are patenting special catalysts which enable speeding up the process about 100-fold. We have already published three papers on this subject. It would be a momentous discovery.”
Much of the group’s research is done interdisciplinary with other departments at Ariel University, primarily by visiting research fellows and graduate students from abroad, and in cooperation with other research centers in Israel and abroad.
Fuel cells are considered to be “the next thing” in clean energy. They are already being used to power electric cars, such as the Toyota Mirai but have not yet proved to be sufficiently cost-effective for major consumer use. To do so would require further scientific improvements empowered by large capital investment for development. “We are striving to make our contribution as an important step towards a sustainable clean energy economy.”