This recently-created institution will research several uses of natural gas. One of these plans the development, on an industrial scale, of fuel cells based on the breakdown of the hydrocarbon molecules of the gas.

In operation since January 2016, the Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI) has the mission of investigating the uses of this resource, in a move to increase their participation in the Brazilian energy matrix and also to make a contribution towards the mitigation of emission of greenhouse gases. Natural gas is a fossil fuel which is found in underground reservoirs in many parts of the world, both on dry land as also offshore. According to specialists, among the fuels of fossil origin there is a lower impact of emissions. For this reason, this has a strategic role to play to promote the transition between an energy matrix based on fossils and a cleaner matrix.

“This is a cleaner fossil fuel, which pollutes less, whose main component is methane (CH4) which can be used as a supply for the petrochemical industry, so that other products may be made. It plays an essential role in the transition from an energy matrix based on fossils to one that is cleaner”, explains teacher Júlio Meneghini, the coordinator of the RCGI and the head teacher at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), where the Centre is based. According to the researcher, over the last six years there has been a 30% increase in the participation of natural gas in the Brazilian energy matrix.

Guided by three complementary lines of research – Engineering, Physical Chemistry, and Energy Policies and the Economy – the RCGI will investigate such issues as the generation of energy with low carbon emissions, use of natural gas as fuel for ships, prevention of leakages of methane gas, advanced combustion of natural gas, production of hydrogen to feed fuel cells, energy policies and the economy, among others.

Meneghini calls attention to the production of hydrogen from natural gas. “Hydrogen is a clean fuel. Cars running on hydrogen as fuel produce water vapor. Some car manufacturers have just placed on the market some models of cars running on hydrogen.  Electricity is produced in fuel cells, through an electrochemical reaction between the hydrogen on board and the oxygen in the air. “What not many people know is that the production of hydrogen from the breakage of the hydrocarbon molecules which are components of natural gas is the cheapest and the most efficient way of producing it”, he says.

The professor also stresses that Brazil, together with Germany, Japan and the United States, have relatively advanced programs for the production of hydrogen-operated buses. “We already have some prototypes in operation on the bus corridor that connects the cities of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema, in Greater São Paulo (EMTU). However, we still do not produce the fuel cell or the storage area for the hydrogen. With RCGI, we believe that within five years we will be able to deliver a form of technology by which the industry can produce the fuel cells and the reservoirs here in Brazil.”

Partners – As the result of a call-up launched by FAPESP (Research Support Foundation of the State of São Paulo) and BG Brazil (a company of the BG Group, recently acquired by Shell), the Centre is a mix of two different programs run by FAPESP: Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers (CEPIDs) and Programs for Support for Research Partnerships in Technological Innovation (PITEs). The total investment planned through to 2020 is approximately BRL 100 million, as follows: BRL 27 million from FAPESP, BRL 30 million from BG Brazil, and BRL 43 million in compensation from USP.

Nine departments from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) are involved in this project: Mechanical Engineering (PME); Mechatronics and Mechanical Systems (PMR); Naval and Oceanic Engineering (PNV); Chemical Engineering (PQI); Mines and Production Engineering (PMI); Telecommunications and Control (PTC); Production Engineering (PRO), Energy and Electrical Automation (PEA); and Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering (PHA). This partnership also includes the Energy and Environment Institutes (IEE), the Institute for Nuclear and Energy Research (IPEN) and the Institute of Chemistry of São Carlos (IQ – USP São Carlos), apart from the Faculty of Law, all these being part of the University of São Paulo (USP), and also the Institute of Chemistry of the Federal University of São Carlos and the School of Medicine of the Federal University of São Paulo. “Negotiations are already under way so we may include other Universities, and we have already agreed on partnerships with the Secretariat for Energy and Mining of the State of São Paulo and with InvestSP, both of which are organizations within the Government of the State of São Paulo.”

Another strategic partner is the Sustainable Gas Institute (SGI), associated with the Imperial College London. In addition, renowned traditional institutions are also connected with the initiative, including University College London, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Leeds (United Kingdom); the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Texas A&M University (USA); the Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany) and the University of Lyon (France).

“We have established Exchange agreements between researchers and students, and will promote seminars and workshops. We have already agreed on a Program for Study Grants involving the University of São Paulo (USP), Imperial College and the CNPq. This program already has 25 study grants available, of which five are for post-doctoral level, eight are full doctorates at the Imperial College, and four are double doctoral qualifications, all having the co-tutorship of a teacher from the University of São Paulo (USP)”, says the professor. “Starting at the thirtieth month after the launch, we will have over 170 researchers working at the Centre, including professors, post-doctoral students, students studying for doctorates and master’s degrees, and students from scientific initiation programs for undergraduate research”.