Luca Scapino (30) has been working as a researcher for the Thermal Energy and Energy Markets group of VITO/EnergyVille in Genk since October 2019. Before, he had already finished his PhD research there. “Energy has always been the main theme throughout my education and career.” Fundamental research has always interested me, but I also want to stay close to economic and industrial reality. To me, VITO/EnergyVille is the perfect combination of academic work and business.”

During your PhD research, you studied energy storage through ‘thermal sorption’ for four years. Can you explain what this means?

“There are various ways to store energy thermally (i.e. by means of heat). You can heat a medium like water and then remove the heat from it at a later stage. That is called sensible heat storage. Or you can use your energy to change the state of a substance (solid to liquid, for example); this process is reversible and is called latent heat storage.

A third form of thermal energy storage is sorption; that was the subject of my PhD. For this we use a reversible thermochemical reaction: we use heat to break a substance down into various components. By putting these components back together, the energy we put in earlier is returned to us. So as long as they remain separate, the energy remains stored. The advantage of the process is that thermal losses are small. The energy density is also high, which makes it suitable for practical and, for example, mobile solutions.”

Are there any commercial applications yet?

“It is still too early for that, as the technology is now only available on a lab scale. But because of the minimal thermal losses, you could already start thinking of interesting applications like long-term heat storage. You could, for example, take the heat harvested by solar collectors during the summer and store it in your attic. That will allow you to heat your house during the winter.

It’s exactly this potential that makes it worth the effort to evaluate the technology from the very start. At VITO/EnergyVille, we are used to assessing technologies – even at their earliest stages of development – on a system level within the evolving energy landscape.” I performed a techno-economic assessment for a specific energy system. It showed that the integration of thermochemical storage could yield potential benefits of up to 40 percent. It should, however, be noted that many aspects are currently still unknown, like the actual costs of sorption agents.”

You studied at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), a relatively new partner within the PhD programme of VITO/EnergyVille. What was the collaboration like?

“We matched straight away in terms of subject matter. Energy has always been the main theme throughout my education and career. For my Master’s degree I studied Sustainable Energy Technology, and if you want to continue in that field you will come across VITO/EnergyVille sooner or later. I didn’t really view myself as an academic either. Fundamental research has always interested me, but I also want to stay close to economic and industrial reality. To me, VITO/EnergyVille is the perfect combination of academic work and business.

As usual I had promotors both at TU/e and at VITO/EnergyVille – two at each organisation, in fact. Initially things were a bit confusing with four supervisors, as it was not always clear who was responsible for which part of the PhD supervision. Fortunately, this problem resolved itself in a natural way. That division of roles may need some further clarification, as I’m already hearing that more students at TU/e want to do their PhDs at VITO/EnergyVille.”

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