Alexey Levchenko: “There is, of course, life after the grant”

Interview with the head of the NTI Competence Center "New and Mobile Energy Sources"

Snezhana Shabanova/FRC PCP and MCh RAS

At the end of 2022, the NTI Competence Centers of the first wave completed the first cycle of their life. State funding has ended and they will continue to live on their own money. Portals Indicator.Ru and Inscience.News spoke with the head of one of the first Centers – the NTI Competence Center “New and Mobile Energy Sources” at the Federal Research Center for Problems of Chemical Physics and Medical Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Chernogolovka Alexei Levchenko.

Let’s start with the background. Are you in the center from the very beginning? Tell us how it appeared and what happened before it.

Before him, there was the Department of Functional Materials for Chemical Energy Sources of the Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which dealt with materials that can be used to develop technologies for various power sources. We worked there on materials for lithium-ion and other metal-ion batteries, for fuel cells, for electrochemical sensors, and flow batteries. That is, for a whole range of electrochemical devices. And all this was a good start in order to launch these works in a more applied format.

Of course, there were not enough backlogs that both our Institute and our department had to single-handedly receive a large project of the Competence Center, so we created a large consortium that included a number of scientific organizations with similar tasks. Our strongest partners are Skoltech and Moscow State University, which have significant developments in the field of lithium-ion and post-lithium-ion batteries. Also, one cannot fail to note the work that is carried out at the RCTU and the InEnergy group of companies, it is our very strong industrial partner, and provided co-financing for a number of works that were performed at the Competence Center.

Thanks to a powerful consortium, which includes a number of other scientific and industrial organizations, we have prepared a serious application with a plan for the implementation of projects in terms of increasing the level of technological readiness of technologies used in chemical power sources. The application was accepted and this allowed us to implement a number of technologies within the framework of the Center’s program.

Do I understand correctly that the department, on the basis of which the Center was “assembled”, moved from R&D to R&D in its work?

In many ways, this is how the work was built. Prior to this, our work was mainly research and development. The only thing close to R&D in the department was work on fuel cells, since we have already applied our developments in unmanned vehicles. But in other areas, the transition from R&D to R&D has just turned out. And in the direction of fuel cells, I would like to note that the Center’s program has made it possible to qualitatively improve the technologies we are developing. Here we can really talk about technologies, because at the moment we have a pilot production of fuel cells, which we use in various equipment, and a pilot line for batteries is being prepared for launch.

In the public field, the Central Committee, despite the fact that it bears the more general name “New and Mobile Energy Sources”, in the mass consciousness is equated with the Center for Hydrogen Technologies. This is how it happened historically, and let’s talk about what has been done in the field of hydrogen over the past 5 years.

The center has really become a center for hydrogen technologies in many respects for the simple reason that in this area we had the largest technological backlog, real examples of devices. Of course, in terms of performance, they were worse than what we have done over the past five years. But due to the fact that from the very beginning we could offer customers specific technical devices in the field of hydrogen technologies, it looked solid.

First of all, we have improved the quality and manufacturability of air-cooled fuel cells, which are used for robotics. The specific power characteristics of fuel cells have been improved – depending on their size – from one and a half to almost two times. In my opinion, this is a very serious indicator. And we managed to achieve this improvement due to the technological component: the development of our own catalyst, a new composition of catalytic layers, the determination of the conditions for their application, the use of various equipment. All this improved their final functional properties.

In addition, we have worked very seriously on the design of air-cooled fuel cells and applied a number of solutions that allowed us to reduce their mass while maintaining power. All this allowed us to improve performance, and this was a major step in the development of fuel cell technology in our country.

Naturally, we also worked on the storage and production of hydrogen. According to the program of the Center, first of all, this was the direction associated with various chemical sources of hydrogen. Here we also had a very serious technological backlog – we developed samples of chemical hydrogen generators based on draft inorganic compounds. Using these compounds, we have created chemical generators with a specific hydrogen content greater than in most modern cylinders, while being comparable to cylinders in terms of dimensions.

If the design and manufacturing technology of such generators are improved, then it is possible to obtain figures for the specific amount of hydrogen that are noticeably higher than those in modern cylinders. Given that hydrogen can be stored in chemical generators for a long time and such a system is safe to store, they can be used as backup systems, or where very long storage of hydrogen is required without use. For example, for backup current sources.

Within the framework of the Center’s program, we have two projects related specifically to the application of fuel cells – this is the application in transport and flying technology. For these tasks, liquid-cooled fuel cell power plants were developed, they were tested in real conditions on equipment that was developed, among other things, by our partners. In this area, we were able to accumulate a fairly large scientific and technological reserve, both in terms of design and operating conditions.

The center’s employees are actively involved in the creation of a regulatory framework for hydrogen-related technologies. Whether it is possible more in detail about it?

Rosstandart transferred the technical committee TK-29 “Hydrogen Technologies” to our Federal Research Center (then IPPC RAS). And, of course, the employees of the Institute and the Center were actively involved in the work on adjusting the regulatory framework and developing standards in the field of hydrogen technologies.

The center is working on lithium-ion and post-lithium-ion batteries. Can you tell us more about both fundamental work and practical application?

Work on lithium-ion batteries is the first in terms of the number of projects, but the second in terms of our common external interests. By the way, it is correct to say about our work – “metal-ion batteries”. They were divided among three organizations – our Federal Research Center, Moscow State University and Skoltech. Each organization was engaged in its own direction, and our common task was to create a set of Russian technologies for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Here we focused mainly on the development of materials, but there were also two projects on new types of batteries – for sodium-ion work was carried out at Moscow State University and for potassium-ion – at Skoltech. Of course, these works are of a more fundamental nature, but I want to note that the work on sodium-ion batteries was completed with a really working prototype, which showed very good performance. AND,

Another area of ​​work is flow batteries, they are also called flow drives or flow batteries. These works were carried out in four organizations – at Skoltech, at RCTU, InEnergy and at our Federal Research Center, and were concentrated in different areas and different technologies of flow batteries. At Skoltech, the technology of lithium-ion flow batteries was used, at RCTU we also had work on flow batteries with vanadium electrolyte. The level of technological readiness, of course, is different: at Skoltech it was more fundamental research, while the work that was done here, at RCTU and InEnergy, was more applied in nature. And we have samples of energy storage devices based on flow batteries that work effectively.

The Competence Center, unlike many others, also conducts large-scale educational activities. Tell me more about her.

The program of the Center has a very serious section on education. And we did it deliberately: if we talk about basic knowledge and basic technologies, they are being developed by a number of educational organizations. There are many universities where they give excellent knowledge in electrochemistry, materials science, but then this knowledge needs to be applied in terms of developing final devices. Therefore, we built our educational courses in such a format to show students how to develop these devices. That is, our courses and educational programs were more applied in order to provide additional education not only for students and graduate students, but also to train specialists from industrial organizations. We have real experience in training KAMAZ specialists in the field of fuel cell technology. We have already trained about 40 people, students came to us, took theoretical courses, we told them about the design of fuel cells, how they work, what are the specifics of application technologies and technological components. They showed how fuel cells are manufactured, assembled, tested, noted the features from a technological point of view.

That is, our educational program is focused primarily on the training of specialists who would be of interest to already applied, in fact, the customer.

In 2021, the Center – so far the only one of the entire structure of the NTI – was awarded the prize for the popularization of science “For fidelity to science”. How do you see the task of the Center in this direction? Why are you doing this?

In fact, this is a very important direction, without which there would be no such active life of the Center, its active development. Popularization of our developments is an important component of our work. It was conducted both by the founder of our Center – Yuri Dobrovolsky, and by our entire very cool PR team. We have always shown what we do, how we do it, what interesting results we get, how they can be applied in industry. That is, we try to present all this competently, beautifully, and this allowed our PR team, together with the founder of the Center, to receive this award.

The five-year period of public funding has ended. What’s next? Is there life after the grant?

There is life after the grant, no doubt. Almost all technologies and materials that are developed within the framework of the Center’s program are in demand. Now, of course, there is a difficult political situation that affects our work, but we continue to develop the technological component. And here you can describe several vectors of development. Within the framework of the Competence Center, a youth laboratory was created, which continues a number of works of the center, primarily in terms of the R&D component of the development of new materials and approaches to their use in chemical current sources. We continue to work actively with our industrial partners, in particular, with InEnergy, which has been our partner since the establishment of the center, and here work is focused primarily on hydrogen technologies, lithium-ion batteries and flow batteries.

I also want to note our new activity, which has been developing in the last year. It is related to the interest of AFK Sistema in hydrogen technologies. And using a number of results of intellectual activity that were developed at the Center, a joint venture was created – the Center for Hydrogen Energy, which includes our Federal Research Center. And this enterprise is now actively starting its way in the field of already quite applied development of a number of hydrogen technologies already for specific tasks.

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