Mihalis Tsampas, team leader of Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy, wants to make cheap catalysts for solar fuels. An interview about membranes, working with companies, and motivating the team members.
Short biography of Mihalis Tsampas
Michail (Mihalis) Tsampas leads the group 'Catalytic and Electrochemical Processes for Energy' at DIFFER. He was born in Greece and obtained his BSc in Physics and his MSc and PhD in Chemical Engineering, all at the University of Patras. Tsampas did his first postdoc at the Cyprus Institute where he conducted research on energy, environment and water. After that he worked as a postdoc at the Institut de Catalyse et de l'Environnement de Lyon (France). Since the summer of 2014 he is a senior researcher and group leader at DIFFER
You worked in very diverse places. Is there a common thread after all?
"The common theme is that I combine physics, chemistry, and materials. I did that when I was at university in Greece, I did that when I was a postdoc in Cyprus and France, and I combine those three disciplines at DIFFER."
Your start at DIFFER was quite challenging.
"I started in 2014, right in the middle of DIFFER moving to Eindhoven. It took until 2017 for the labs to be completed. My tenure track evaluation was in 2018. So it was a bit stressful period that I couldn't show many results. But everything worked out fine and we have been well up to speed for quite a while now."
What is your research about at DIFFER?
"We want to make so-called solar fuels. That are chemicals that are produced with help of solar energy. Examples of those chemicals are hydrogen (H2), ammonia (NH3), and methane (CH4). We try to make them out of low energy value molecules such as water (H2O), nitrogen dioxide (N2), and carbon dioxide (CO2)."
Why should we make solar fuels and not convert sunlight directly into electricity as we do with solar panels?
"The first advantage is that you can store those solar fuels easily for later use. For example, to use when the sun doesn't shine. The second advantage is that you can produce these chemicals when there is excess energy. This is the case, for example, on summer days with strong winds. The third advantage is that you can use the chemicals for other purposes than just energy alone. Ammonia, for example, is used by farmers as a fertilizer. And a fourth advantage is that big industries are difficult to electrify their production lines. So the research in the solar fuels field could open new directions that will benefit society in the end."
Great, so what's the problem?
"Actually, there are many challenges to be addressed. Most of the current pathways to make solar fuels are not as efficient as we want in order to find place in the market. The efficient ones normally suffer from utilization of expensive and scale materials and thus cannot be scaled up in the levels needed. Finally, despite the potential of many processes the stability of the materials is not adequate."
And where do you come in?
"My group tries to find novel materials and processes that will try to address the challenges in the field. The common denominator of our work is that we use electrochemical membrane reactors. Those are composed of ionic conducing membranes that can be made from ceramics or polymers. We believe that our approach can be helpful for improving efficiency of processes via the coupling with external activation knobs like light and plasma. "
Why do we need membranes in the first place?
"Aha, good question. That is because with electrochemical reactions you have a plus and a minus, a cathode and an anode. Half of the reaction takes place at the cathode, and the other half at the anode. You have to separate those reactions, otherwise, you get mixing with risk of back reactions or at large scale explosions."
You use knowledge from DIFFER's fusion department too, how come?
"Normally electrochemical reactions take place with ions in fluids. But instead of ions in a fluid, you can use ions in a gas: a plasma. At DIFFER, we are experts at making plasmas. We have been using plasmas for a long time in fusion research, but also for quite a few years to enable chemical reactions to take place."
Which facilities and instruments of DIFFER do you use?
"We routinely used the Ion Beam Facility to evaluate the composition of our materials. However, recently we found out that you can use this facility to define the porosity and exact loading of an iridium based catalyst. Iridium is very expensive, so we try to use as less as possible. We can now use five times less material and still get the same performance. Furthermore, we use the Upgraded Pilot-PSI."
PSI is for fusion right?
"Yes, the fusion researchers use it to investigate how plasmas affect the wall of a reactor. We use it to deliberately roughen up our originally very smooth materials. If you slightly modify your material, you get more surface area, and more surface area leads to higher activity for chemical reactions."
You collaborate with companies. Isn't that complicated with non-disclosure agreements and the like?
"You get used to it. And for me, the benefits far outweigh that. Working with companies helps me choose directions. When a company is interested, you know that you are on the right track. And besides that, companies are linked with society. So, through companies, I, we, can reach society faster."
You are known for having a diverse team. How about that?
"I like to work on different topics, so it helps if my team members have different backgrounds. Of course, there are some challenges to having a diverse team. I have to invest quite some time to transfer my knowledge and learn from them. When I started as a group leader, I was more introverted than I am now. I have learned to open up. That helps when you want to motivate your team members. And when they enjoy what they do, I thrive as well."