With some twenty patents under his belt and a hobby as a private aircraft pilot, Philippe Stevens is a Franco-British researcher who displays a cool and composed temperament along with a modesty that is inversely proportional to the major significance of his research accomplishments. A winner of the Science Academy Awards 2005 for his work on fuel cells, his research is now focused on developing the disruptive battery technologies of the future. We went to meet him.
Which of your projects stands out most in your mind?
After my PhD in chemistry, I worked and contributed at Oxford to the development of a new air electrode for polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells or PEMFCs.
That was a highly innovative technology back in the 1980s, and it gave me the opportunity not only to be one of the pioneers to synthesise carbon electrodes for PEMFCs, but to do so in an international context.
Then in the 1990s, the CEA gave me the opportunity to develop the first fuel cells in combination with the industrial reduction of hydrogen using water electrolysis; I then continued working on these topics at EDF’s R&D division.
What are you researching at the moment?
At first glance, you'd say that it's about energy storage, but it is the ultimate aim of my research work that is most important: it must change the status quo. So to contribute effectively to the energy transition, you have to have industrial-scale production as your target, and as far as I'm concerned, that means disruptive technologies as the basis for operational processes that are patented and then marketed. That's exactly what we've done with the high-temperature water electrolysis solution that originated with EIFER, and has been successfully developed by SunFire (the German start-up funded by Electranova Capital, an investment fund supported by EDF). We plan to follow the same kind of procedure for the Metal-Air battery.
"Many obstacles have been removed in the development of the Metal-Air battery, from decomposition of the air electrode during charging, to internal short-circuits, battery contamination caused by atmospheric CO2, insufficient power, and so on…".
What would you say is the catalyst for progress?
Without any hesitation, I would say the scientific attitude adopted by our R&D, which includes collaborative work, ambition, excellence, substantial technical resources, the involvement of postgraduate students and – above all – freedom.
We can really feel the trust that is so necessary for a researcher to work serenely. We feel supported, we are given the latitude and right to make mistakes, both of which are the fuel required to release energy and be creative. You need to be bold and daring in order to innovate!
Alongside his projects…
Since he returned to France in 2011, Philippe Stevens has set himself the priority of focusing all his energy on Metal-Air batteries, which will enter industrial-scale production very soon.