As his flagship project continues to literally break milestones and the countdown for final takeoff nears the famous expression “t, minus 10 seconds,” Ad Astra Rocket Company founder and scientist Franklin Chang-Díaz is gradually advancing.
This, because as it continues to work on taking its engine into space, which would be ready for such a journey in 2023, he also focuses on seeking a cleaner planet. In fact, he affirms that all the paths towards decarbonization, on our planet, go through hydrogen.
The retired businessman and astronaut tells about his vision of hydrogen in the country, as well as the difficulties of carrying out ventures in Costa Rica and the need to modernize Costa Rican legislation on these issues.
“Many times we talk about the famous decarbonization, but we don’t say how we are going to achieve it. There is no plausible decarbonization pathway that does not have hydrogen. “It has been difficult to put that notion in front of Costa Ricans, but I think that little by little people are understanding. Change the no for why not. I think the most feasible thing in Costa Rica is to do something that can be shown,” he said.
For the scientist, “decarbonization is something totally feasible in Costa Rica, but we have to think differently,” he said. In that sense, he affirms that hydrogen will play a star role in the coming decades. Although interest in this technology is increasing in the most developed countries, it has encountered many “obstacles” within our borders. This, even when the country has natural advantages that other nations do not have available, said Chang-Díaz.
“We have had projects that are being developed in Colombia, in Uruguay we are seeing a lot of interest and in Argentina. I was recently talking with specialists in Mexico to get into a project. “I already see the interest, but we have had many stumbling blocks in recent years here in Costa Rica. Even within the same academy, within the same government, the same entities that oppose these changes ”, he added.
The notion of Chang-Díaz is shared by international leaders. The businessman highlighted the incorporation of Chile to the “International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy”. This international initiative sets the standard on the issue, and its action plan to combat climate change was supported by the group of nations called G8. The Chilean incorporation makes it the third Latin American country to be incorporated.
The previous two were Brazil and Costa Rica. The first was part of its founding in 2003, while our nation was accepted in 2019. Despite the fact that Costa Rica has been ahead of Chile, on this issue, thanks to the work of the Ad Astra Rocket Company over the last decade, South Americans announced last year that they want to be at the forefront.
In July 2020, the Chilean Minister of Energy, Juan Carlos Jobet, announced that this country not only seeks to produce national energy based on hydrogen, but also to become one of the main exporters of this novel product. For Chang-Díaz, that is something Costa Rica could perfectly aspire to. In fact, he mentioned that countries like Japan and the Nordic region of Europe have emerged as importers of hydrogen, coming from Australia.
Therein lies the advantage of our country, explained the scientist. Until recently, and still in a large part of industrialized countries, this element was produced from fossil fuels. For this reason it is called as gray or brown hydrogen.
Hydrogen from Costa Rica, thanks to the use of renewable sources, is considered “green” worldwide. That is the hydrogen that Asians or Europeans are looking for, he added. In the case of Ad Astra Rocket Company, the company has a series of solar panels and a small electric turbine for its station in Liberia. Until two years ago, it was the only one of its kind in Latin America and the next closest is in the state of Texas, in the United States.
For this reason, Chang-Díaz is still looking for a partner to consolidate a public-private alliance that allows expanding this technology within our borders. This is why, once he has achieved that partnership, the plan will be to build a series of stations.
“We wish we could set up several stations. Each one, depending on how much they are producing, cost in the order of $ 1.3 to $ 1.5 million. We are talking about 20 kilos of hydrogen per day, with a power requirement of about 300 kilowatts. That can be done relatively easy. We already know how to do it, we have 10 years of experience. This is the business of Ad Astra Rocket Company here in Costa Rica. So, we are missing who is interested in these stations. I always thought that Recope’s transformation could go that way ”, he explained.
Despite the fact that, since 2011, the Costa Rican Petroleum Refinery (Recope) showed interest, the report of the Comptroller General of the Republic, DFOE-AE-0862, dated December 15, 2014, forced the institution to back down.
“If it had continued, we would be in orbit by now. We would have several stations. Unfortunately, we have a country that has many difficulties. That entered a legal issue and, basically, it was a way in which someone decided that the Government could not be financing a job for a private company,” he said.
However, he maintains that the doors of his company are still open to Recope or any other institution that wants to carry out this project. In addition, he highlighted the range of commercial opportunities that could represent for the country.
“That refines water to produce hydrogen, to produce oxygen. They can be involved in the storage of hydrogen in the form of ammonia or nitrogen for transport or export. There are many business areas that would look great. When you embrace the hydrogen economy, you are producing large amounts of pure water. It is another important business and it is an input that is being scarce in the world. The electric train that we want so much can be hydrogen, as they are already doing in Europe”, he pointed out.
The scientist added that he hopes that the institution will be able to resolve its “legal entanglements” in order to be able to join again, since it would be the ideal partner. In October 2019, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) signed an agreement with the company to study the production of this element.
Previously, in May 2018, President, Carlos Alvarado, signed a decree to promote the use of hydrogen as fuel. It establishes the obligation to develop an action plan in order to promote its research, production and commercialization. However, their scope is unknown as of today.
Although he accepts that the challenge can sometimes be exhausting, he remains determined to make this technology available to all Costa Ricans and the rest of the world. Sometimes one is saddened to see how difficult it is for these things to come together in our country, despite the great interest and goodwill of many people who want to do so. The country has to be totally in gear and we have not yet achieved that.
“But when you arrive and find that you can ride a Hydrogen vehicle, here in Liberia. You can handle it, see how it works and see how much it costs, people realize that it is impossible. Our interest is to carry out these small projects so that people can become more familiar”, he concluded.