in the workplace

“I have been working on safe storage of liquid hydrogen”

14 February 2019 • 4 min reading time

Bilim Atli-Veltin has been voted ‘Young Excellent Researcher 2018’ by her colleagues. “Our scientific research always has a link with practical reality.”

Care to know more?

Would you like to know more about wind turbines or hydrogen? If so, please contact Bilim Atli-Veltin.


She was born in Turkey, where her father was a professor of fluid dynamics. He named his daughter Bilim, which is Turkish for ‘science’. It is a name she has very much lived up to. She studied in Istanbul, obtained her PhD in America, and ended up in the Netherlands because of her French husband. She has been living and working here for several years now. At the Structural Dynamics research group in Delft, she feels completely at home.

What are you currently working on?

“For a long time, I have been interested in materials under extreme conditions. My PhD research in the US, for example, was about how to make certain structures more energy absorbent. The aim was to apply that knowledge in helicopters. I have done similar research at TNO, but this time for ships. One of the areas I am currently working on is related to liquid hydrogen, which is stored at minus 230 degrees Celsius. Pretty extreme conditions!”

“Hydrogen has great potential because it is a clean energy carrier, but the safety risks are considerable”

Is hydrogen the energy carrier of the future?

“Hydrogen has great potential because it is a clean energy carrier. But there’s still lots of work to be done. For example, if ships are to be powered by hydrogen – which would involve using fuel cells – then they would need large on-board tanks in which the hydrogen would have to be stored in liquid form at extremely low temperatures. Technically, that is feasible but difficult. And the safety risks are considerable. Whenever hydrogen and oxygen mix, a highly inflammable mixture is created. Also, you can’t smell hydrogen when it’s released. So from a safety point of view, it entails high demands on the people who work with it.”

You are also carrying out research into the combination of wind turbines and hydrogen. Can you explain what that entails?

“In stormy days, wind towers can produce a surplus amount of electricity. The same thing can happen with solar panels as well, by the way, on very sunny days. So what do you do with all that excess electricity? You can use electricity to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen. This is known as electrolysis. By storing this hydrogen in tanks, you are therefore storing the surplus renewable energy. I have been researching which materials are the most suitable for building safe storage tanks. One problem is that hydrogen molecules are so small that they can penetrate any material. That means gas is always leaking. Hydrogen tanks must therefore always be in well ventilated spaces.”

“Thinking from the perspective of the client and using the relevant social skills are also important aspects of my work”

Why do you enjoy working at TNO so much?

“The work is very varied. I spend one-third of my time in the lab, one-third behind my computer, and the remainder is spent in contact with governmental bodies and commercial partners. These include large oil and gas companies, the chemical industry and material providers. I very much enjoy being in touch with other parties. Our scientific research always has a link with practical reality. Our partners are also sometimes present during experiments, so it is important to be able to explain in simple terms what exactly is happening and how the scientific research is set-up. Thinking from the perspective of the client and using the relevant social skills are also important aspects of my work.

Do you collaborate much with other TNO teams?

“Yes, with the Optics group for example, who specialise in optical fibre measurement technology. Together, we have embedded sensitive sensors into a windmill prototype. These sensors’ readings indicate the loads to which a turbine is exposed during a storm, among other things. The operator can decide, on the basis of the measurements, when maintenance is needed. That leads to more efficient maintenance.”

“We have embedded sensitive sensors into a windmill prototype, which indicates among other things the loads to which a turbine is exposed during a storm”

How important is work in your life?

“It certainly is important. But no more so than my family. I seek to strike the right balance between the two. I have two young children. I took a long period of unpaid maternity leave with both of them. One of the great things about TNO is that colleagues support each other so that we can enjoy a good work-life balance. As a parent, you may find yourself taking a call during a meeting to be told that your child is ill and needs to be collected from school. At TNO, everyone understands that perfectly well, fortunately.”

What would you still like to achieve at TNO?

“I would like to collaborate more with other TNO teams and research groups, but also with Delft University of Technology and industry. This year, I will be part of the Dutch Ocean Technology Center (DOTC) core team, which focuses on bringing together fundamental and applied research in the field of shipping and offshore technology.”

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