“Girls must be brought up to study whatever they want without any conditions determined by their gender.”

11 February, 2022

On the Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with María Retuerto Millán, a researcher at CSIC, who on this same day in 2021 was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women In Science” prize for her research work. María holds a degree in Chemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid and is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). She obtained her doctorate at the Materials Science Institute of Madrid (ICMM) of the CSIC and, after two years of postdoctoral training, she obtained a Fullbright scholarship to work as a researcher at Rutgers University in the United States. After a year at the University of Copenhagen, she returned to CSIC. Today she is part of the Sustainable Energy and Chemistry (EQS) / Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry team.

Her research work focuses on the development of technology that allows the accumulation of renewable energy in the form of green hydrogen, without the need for the use of noble metals for electrolysis. To this end, she is working on obtaining “polymer membrane electrolysers with inexpensive and durable materials without compromising the efficiency of the system”.

  • What motivated you to go into science?

I always liked science, I liked to understand things. I particularly liked mathematics as a tool, and chemistry, physics and biology to understand how the world and living things work. That’s why I decided to study chemistry. And it was during the last years of my studies that I realised that in order to really dedicate myself to chemistry in a more fundamental way, the ideal path was research.

  • You have recently been recognised with one of the L’Oréal-Unesco 2020/2021 Research Awards, an award given to women under 40 to promote their visibility in science. Is there gender parity in the scientific world?

I think there is parity, if we speak in general terms, at all levels of the scientific career. Perhaps even among young people there are more women than men, for example, doing a doctoral thesis. But the highest levels are still dominated in many cases by male scientists. I understand that this is due, in large part, to the fact that not so many years ago many women did not study or work, and so I hope that in the coming years this will change.

What happens is that, to this day, the family burden and the sharing of tasks is still mainly undertaken by women. The scientific career is very demanding and requires high scientific productivity to be able to access the few options we have. This means that women cannot keep up with the pace of work (in my opinion unnecessary) that many men do, and therefore, they cannot have same kinds of CV as men. I hope that with equal paternity and maternity leave and other measures, it will gradually become more equal.

There is overall parity in scientific careers, but the highest levels are still dominated in many cases by male scientists

Another problem is the lower professional respect that some men still have for women just because of their gender, which hinders access to positions of greater responsibility and makes many of them feel more insecure or demand more of themselves to try to access these positions, or even not try at all. This is a more difficult underlying problem to solve.

  • What do you think is the way forward for more girls to choose science as a career path?

I believe that the main way forward is social education, that is, that between all of us we can make any girl feel absolutely capable of developing a scientific or technical career, without feeling that she is less appropriate for it than a boy. I believe that girls should be encouraged and educated from a young age to study whatever they want without any conditions determined by their gender. And of course, to think freely, to show their ideas freely and not to be stepped on by others.

  • As a researcher at CSIC, you are involved in a project for the generation of green hydrogen through water electrolysis. What does this project specifically consist of?

The Roadmap for Renewable Hydrogen of the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge aims to position Spain as the leading country in the development and deployment of green hydrogen technologies, and identifies its potential to become a major net exporter by 2050. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to develop advanced and affordable technologies to produce green hydrogen on a large scale.

Several methods are currently being developed to produce green hydrogen, including water electrolysis, biomass gasification, and photochemical and thermochemical water splitting. Water electrolysis is the only one commercially available. However, only 0.03% to 4% (depending on the source consulted) of all hydrogen production is through electrolysis. This is partly due to economic issues. The price of natural gas is cheap, while the price of electricity and the cost of electrolysers are high. However, this scenario is rapidly evolving towards a more favourable production of green hydrogen. In fact, renewable electricity is now cheaper than combined cycle production, so the cost of green hydrogen production is now dominated by the cost of the electrolyser.

We are working on developing more efficient and more affordable electrolysers

In our group we are working on developing more efficient and more affordable electrolysers. We work in alkaline and polymeric electrolysis. In particular, in my research project I focus on polymer electrolysis, which best meets the requirements for renewable energy storage. However, this technology has certain problems, such as its high cost and the low durability of the materials used. Our goal is to design new catalysts (electrodes) that are not based on noble metals and that improve the performance of the materials currently in use, both in terms of efficiency, durability and cost-effectiveness. And, currently, I am also looking for funding to decrease the titanium content of bipolar plates, as it is mostly responsible for the high cost of these devices.

  • What place do you think green hydrogen will have in the energy system of the future?

Spain’s National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC) foresees a total installed capacity in the electricity sector of 161 GW by 2030. It is therefore necessary to develop technologies for the storage of surplus renewable energy. Several methods are currently available (flow batteries, molten salts, pumped hydroelectric power plants or flywheels), but green hydrogen needs to be introduced as an energy storage method to achieve the proposed storage targets.

Green hydrogen has been identified by the EU as the ideal renewable energy carrier, as it can be used to reduce the carbon footprint of sectors dependent on highly polluting fossil fuels. Accordingly, green hydrogen can help decarbonise transportation through fuel cell vehicles (long range, trucks, buses, trains, etc.), it can decarbonise the heating and power of buildings by being injected into the gas grid (reducing carbon content), it can decarbonise industry’s heat use and, finally, it is a renewable raw material to produce synthetic green chemicals or fuels or commodities such as ammonia or methanol.

Hydrogen is already a widely used product in industry. In 2020, global hydrogen demand was ~90 Mt, and was produced almost entirely from fossil fuels, resulting in approximately 900Mt of CO2 emissions per year. In addition, green hydrogen production is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years. Thus, the EU has projected a near-term production of 1 MMtons of green hydrogen with at least 6 GW of operational electrolysers by 2024, and a more ambitious production of 10 MMtons of green hydrogen with 40 GW of electrolysers by 2030.

In Spain, the Renewable Hydrogen Roadmap has set a target of 4 GW of electrolysers installed by 2030. Clearly, in addition to its environmental benefits, there is a strong commercial opportunity around green hydrogen, including production, distribution and use.

The introduction of green hydrogen and the new technologies associated with its entire value chain will increase the demand for high-skilled jobs

So, the introduction of green hydrogen and the new technologies associated with its entire value chain will increase the demand for high-skilled jobs. The Spanish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform forecasts that more than 200,000 skilled jobs could be generated by 2030. A forecast that will be achieved only if specialists in hydrogen technologies are trained. In this regard, much of the impact on the national economy and employment will be related to the transfer of knowledge from the research sector to the industrial sector.

The installation in Spain of large infrastructures (electrolysers) to generate green hydrogen may be limited to the purchase of the devices from large foreign multinationals, if Spanish companies do not adapt their production processes to this new technology to manufacture their own electrolysers. For the time being, the Spanish Hydrogen Association, partnered by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism, is working on the Hydrogen Industry Sectorial Agenda, where all these capabilities of the national industry will be described, as well as the different needs of the technology.

Spanish SMEs have the capacity to manufacture these essential components of the equipment for the hydrogen economy

Electrodes, porous transport layers and bipolar plates of the different electrolysers are some of the essential components to be developed, and Spanish SMEs have the capacity to manufacture these essential components of the equipment for the hydrogen economy.