María Retuerto, CSIC chemist: “Green hydrogen opens a new world to decarbonize the energy sector”

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This researcher from the Institute of Catalysis and Petroleochemistry has won one of the L’Orà © al-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science for her studies on this renewable energy source that has aroused the interest of governments and large companies


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“Renewable hydrogen is a key sustainable solution for the decarbonization of the economy.” Thus begins the Hydrogen Roadmap, approved in October 2020 by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO). A document with which the Government intends to promote this source of energy “so that Spain reaches climate neutrality, with a 100% renewable electrical system, no later than 2050.”

María Retuerto, a doctor in chemistry, tenured researcher at the CSIC’s Institute of Catalysis and Petroleochemistry, knows him well. The study of Hydrogen has marked his scientific career. At first, as in all non-existent science or application studies, being listened to and getting funded was an arduous task involving hours of work. Now, what it does is in the crosshairs of governments and large companies.

For this reason, her work has been awarded by the L’Orà © al-UNESCO For Women In Science program, an annual international award given to five women under 40 years of age. This year, together with Retuerto, the Spanish Sonia Ruiz (nanotechnology researcher), Clara Cuesta (neutrinos), Jezabel Curbelo (fluid dynamics) and Judith Birkenfeld (pathology of the ocular cornea) have been chosen.

On the table, 15,000 euros of reward, each one, will support their advances. MarÃa Retuerto will use them to hire staff: “In Spain, as there is so little funding, the groups are very small and you lack hands. In the United States there are a lot of people, money and efficiency is very high. I want to create a strong group to advance in this technology “, he explains.

But what is green hydrogen and why is it MITECO’s big bet? The winner tells it in this interview for EL MUNDO.

What does your research consist of?
The energy sector must be decarbonized because we emit many polluting gases. For decarbonization, we must change the energy model and introduce green hydrogen. On the way to changing the energy model, it is necessary to stop using fossil sources as far as possible and, in the long term, to use renewable energies massively. To do this, we must accumulate the excesses of renewables that we do not use (mainly wind or photovoltaic) and use them when we do not have them. There are different ways to accumulate renewable energy. The ideal way to do this is with green hydrogen. This energy is accumulated in the form of batteries to later obtain electricity. But this technology still has many problems. In my project, I try to improve the direct system, electrolysis, which accumulates renewable energy in the form of hydrogen. I research new materials that improve the characteristics of electrolysis. The efficiency has to be higher, so that energy is not lost in the process. The materials (the electrolyzers) must be more durable and cheaper.
Why is green hydrogen now getting all the attention?
The reason why Europe and Spain are getting so involved with hydrogen is because it is not just about transforming it into electricity through fuel cells. Green hydrogen can be introduced into many other sectors of industry, where it is already used. What happens is that this hydrogen is black or blue, since it comes from gas or from refineries. In industry, it is also used to create ammonia in fertilizers, for methanol needed in the synthesis of other materials or in the steel industry. The idea is to change that hydrogen to green hydrogen and stop polluting. In addition, it can be used to generate heat, on a residential or industrial level. It can be introduced into the natural gas network (up to 5%, but the idea is to increase it) or natural gas can be formed by capturing CO2. Green hydrogen opens a new world to decarbonize the energy sector.
Black, brown, blue or green hydrogen. Who is who in the hydrogen color gamut?
Green hydrogen comes from accumulating renewable energy. Black hydrogen or brown hydrogen is the most commonly used. It constitutes 70-80% and is formed from natural gas. Hydrogen and CO2 are obtained from methane. CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere and is highly polluting. In the refineries themselves, this hydrogen is generated to obtain gasoline or diesel, producing CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere. Now, more and more blue hydrogen is used, which consists of capturing that CO2 so as not to emit it. In the new energy model, CO2 capture is used to make other products, such as methanol, with which you can create dimethyl ether, a green fuel used in trucks. Biodiesel and biogasolines from aircraft and ships can also be generated. In our project with Air Liquide, with CO2 capture and green hydrogen, we generate biomethanol.
What would be the main advantage of green hydrogen?
Hydrogen, even if you burn it to generate heat, only produces water. It has no carbon and this is its main advantage: it does not pollute. Electricity from renewable energy can be converted into electricity with fuel cells, which can be combined with batteries. In addition, it can be accumulated at home in the form of tanks, placed in a safe area. Europe has given a very big boost to the generation of industrial and residential heat. It consists of putting it into the natural gas network, such as hydrogen, or forming methane by capturing CO2. Another advantageous use would be at the industrial level, exchanging the black and blue hydrogen (which pollute) for green hydrogen to create materials.
You mention safety. Is this your main drawback?
The downside is that it is a new fuel. We live on other fuels, such as gasoline, methane, and batteries. Many people say it is more dangerous. But in reality, it is as dangerous as the rest. Any accumulated fuel is dangerous, because you accumulate energy. It is true that, as it has a lot of energetic power, it can be more explosive. But on the other hand, it is so light that when hydrogen leaks, it escapes at full speed. It does not happen like with gasoline that is spilled, which stays on the ground. Now, we need safety systems adapted to hydrogen, as is done with other fuels. But hydrogen is already used in industry, not that we don’t know how to do it.
You have been investigating for many years. Is it finally recognized that your bet was useful?
This race is tough. I have read the thesis for 12 years and I have been with contracts for many years, from one place to another, asking for projects and financing. The normal thing is that they say to you that no. In 2019, Europe realized that it was necessary to encourage these projects. From there, I started to get European funding, in joint projects with companies and with other research groups. This is how I have obtained Spanish financing. They have given me a project of the National Plan, I have obtained a Ramón y Cajal scholarship with an extra 150,000 euros from the CSIC. Now I can finally do research. I don’t have to ask for financing for my own salary. People don’t know how much research time is wasted in self-financing.
The L’Orà © al-UNESCO Prize claims the importance of science and that more women participate in it. What is wrong with the incorporation of women into certain branches of science, such as technology?
Since I was little, I knew that I would dedicate myself to science. In my family we are all scientists, most of us doctors. My mother is a physicist. My aunt, who taught me, has an incredible passion for chemistry. I have had an education close to what I have been able to dedicate myself to. It is taken for granted that we are good at bio-health careers, but we feel insecure in the face of technical careers. And that is what needs to be changed. The problem is in the education of girls, that they feel as capable as men to do whatever they want, without their gender conditioning them. In addition, rather than analyzing what is happening at high levels, because many of our mothers did not study or did not work, what we have to solve is that our children (now and future generations) do not know what we speak when we speak of discrimination.
Sometimes we encourage male children to science or technology but we do not encourage daughters. Do you mean this?
That is a very clear example. We have it so internalized that we do not realize it. And it is a problem of society as a whole that we all have to solve. It is not about turning against man. That is to confront and make the man take it as less his. We all have sexist behaviors and that must be broken.

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