Pleased to meet: Paige Shirvanian

08-11-2021 | P2Hydrogen

Key expert PEM Electrolysis

Pleased to meet: Paige ShirvanianIn this series we put the spotlight on the VoltaChem team members and get to know them more in-depth. We explore their role, background, expertise, motivations, ambition, and more. In this edition: Paige Shirvanian, scientist PEM electrolysis at the Power-2-Hydrogen program line at VoltaChem.

Paige Shirvanian is an American with Persian background. He has received his MSc in Applied Mathematics (2002) and a PhD in Chemical Engineering (2004) all from Brown University (USA). He then worked as a postdoc at Stanford University before moving to industry, where he gained experience in fuel cells and hydrogen storage at Ford Motor Company (2005-2012) and in sodium metal halide batteries at General Electric (2012-2014). From 2014-2017 he was a faculty member at Tennessee Tech. University with emphasis on academic teaching & mentoring students. He then became a Department of Energy Fellow at Argonne National Laboratory (2017-2018). Since January 2019, Paige has been a Senior Scientist in Electrochemistry at TNO/VoltaChem.

What does your job at VoltaChem involve?

Well, I am working in several areas involving electrochemical generation of fuels (H2) and energy storage (batteries). But the main focus is on proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzers. The thing is that with state-of-the art PEM technology, a gigawatt electrolyzer would require some 500 kilos of iridium. And iridium is a scarce resource: its annual global production is just around 9000 kilos. So, if we don’t reduce the amount of iridium, scaling up PEM technology will overload the supply chain and the price will skyrocket. That’s why other alternatives such as alkaline systems and anion exchange membranes (AEM) electrolyzers are also being studied. These systems do not require the expensive iridium, though they pose other technological challenges.  

How do you plan to solve this iridium issue?

We are working along several lines. In the INCOME and MIGHTIER projects, for instance, we are investigating alternative, more efficient deposition technologies for iridium nanoparticles. We are also pursuing and building up on concepts developed in my previous jobs in the United States, at Argonne National Laboratories and Ford Motor Company. This is about using iridium in ultrathin layers that have a favourable interaction with a secondary material. This results in superior stability and activity compared to the conventionally used nanoparticles. At TNO/VoltaChem we are now further developing this concept, improving it and bringing it to higher TRL levels. We have already been able to reduce the iridium contents and degradation significantly, with marked improvements in performance - and we are not talking incremental improvements here!  It now comes to further optimising the system, which we are doing together with the Holst Centre, Materials Solutions (MaS) and other partners. 

So we can be optimistic about manufacturing low-iridium electrolyzers in the near future?

Well, yes and no! It would be foolish to think that we are able to solve all the problems within a year or two. There can always be pitfalls and unexpected twists. But thus far this has been a surprisingly positive experience. The results we have obtained and the trajectories we have laid out are really, really promising. We have categorized this as the third generation of electrolyzers, leading to technology that around 2030 will contribute to realizing the ambitions in gigawatt electrolysis facilities and hydrogen factories. 

Well, that does sound quite confident. Why the hesitation?

Because it all depends on what will happen in society towards 2030. As long as fossil-based energy technology is as cheap and available as it is now, it will be tough to make sustainable technologies competitive. You can't expect that to change automatically, there's no such thing, we have done the calculations. In my view, firm incentives will have to be developed to move towards hydrogen and clean energy technologies, or else nothing will happen. So, the question is what trajectory policy makers are going to develop if they are committed to make this transition happen. In the US, I discussed this with officials more or less on a regular basis. I'm now trying to find my way to get this message across here in the Netherlands.

Why did you move to TNO, leaving quite respectable positions in USA? 

Well, as you probably know the development efforts in clean energy technologies received a lukewarm attention under the former administration there. Even though our work at Argonne had resulted in a patent application, we could hardly secure funding to pursue that any further. I started looking around for other opportunities, especially in Europe where my wife has her roots. I have to say though that coming to the Netherlands was a little bit of a cultural shock. There's no beating about the bush, you go straight to the point. I'm now of the opinion that's a good feature, but it took some getting used to. It's so very different from the States. There people can be smiling while behind that smile they're just dead serious. Here, when you smile you are really smiling! That suits me, I really like to interact with people and make fun jokes, often related to science.

And working at TNO/VoltaChem, does that suit you?

Yes indeed. I find it quite rewarding to establish progress and be an enabler. My main talent, if you will, is to see to the heart of the technological roadblocks from a scientific viewpoint, assess viability and feasibility, and create innovations to effectively address the roadblocks. To that effect I have generated over 22 patents. I am glad to see much emphasis on meaningful innovations at TNO. In fact, by pursuing this route I see commercially viable applications become available that ultimately make us independent from fossil-fuel based technologies. In other words, innovations targeting roadblocks to generate step-change technological advancements are right up my alley! More often than not you will find roadblocks preventing existing technologies from taking off to become commercially successful with wide-spread adoption. Here is an instance where incremental improvements might not work. That's where I come in; I help to identify what's promising and what's not promising, and come up with solutions that will open up new venues for moving forward in terms of research and development. I really get a kick out of creating innovations; I get this tingling feeling when things work out, when we are able to solve problems and make things happen. 

This is the fifth edition of our 'Pleased to meet:' series. You can read the first one here, featuring Power-2-Chemicals Technical Lead Earl Goetheer. The second one can be read here, featuring Power-2-Hydrogen Technical Lead Arend de Groot. The third one can be read here, featuring Power-2-Integrate Technical Lead Rajat Bhardwaj. The fourth one can be read here, featuring Power-2-Chemicals Project Manager Anca Anastasopol. 


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Want to know more about PEM electrolysis or Power-2-Hydrogen? Contact:

Arend de Groot

Lead Scientist Alkaline, PEM & AEM Water Electrolysis

+31 6 513 720 10


Ties van Maaren

Senior Business Developer

+31 6 212 348 41


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