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Prof. Dario Dekel and his research group study and develop disruptive electrochemical devices based on anion-exchange membranes for a greener and better future

Prof. Dario Dekel discovered his passion for research during his graduate degree studies. During Dario’s  MSc, his supervisor (Prof. Gidi Grader) gave him a research topic (and a thesis title) during the first week of the studies: Preparation of Superconducting Materials by Spray Pyrolysis Technique. He graduated with an outstanding thesis (and paper): “I remember every detail until today”, he says. The PhD was a different experience for him. He describes the period of working with Prof. Hasson and Prof. Semiat on Membrane Separation: “I was working for more than two years to find myself an original work that I could focus on. In my 3rd year I finally found something that no one did, and in just one year, I practically did all the work and developed a novel model that explains how nanofiltration membranes behave in non-aqueous solvents.” This topic was not yet understood at that time. A few years later, Dario and his mentors found that his pioneering work revealed an entirely new field and new understanding that scientists have been using until today.

Prof. Dekel has more than 25 years of experience in the industry. He started a BSc in Argentina – a 6-year long BSc in Chemical Engineering – with a very strong background in Chemistry. In order to pay for his studies, he started working full-time in the chemical labs of a large brewery before the first semester and continued there 9 hours a day in parallel to his studies. On the one hand, a full-time job demands a lot of effort and time, making it very hard to concentrate on your studies. On the other hand, “I work in a chemical plant (brewery), so everything I learned I put to practice in parallel in my job,” Dario says. This experience shaped Dario as an engineer, plus he managed to keep good grades, and graduated with the 3rd best GPA from the whole university (all departments).

After working at the brewery for one additional year to save some money, Dario immigrated to Israel. “Once I immigrated, it took me one year to learn Hebrew and then I started working in a Chemical Plant in a kibbutz, producing fine chemicals for aromas and the food industry.” He worked night shifts in parallel to an MSc degree at the Technion. “In the kibbutz, I learned about the only chemical engineering unit that I did not work in the brewery – distillation. So, in summary, by the time I started my PhD, I already had 9 years of experience in the chemical and food industry, after mastering all the chemical engineering units we learned about during the BSc.” During his PhD degree, besides a 4-month break to serve in the IDF after immigration, Prof. Dekel had four years of additional experience working with membranes, membrane separation processes, polymers, synthesis, and related processes.

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Prof. Dario Dekel, a faculty member at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Technion. “Ignore everyone that tells you that ‘you cannot’, ‘it is impossible’, ‘I already did it and this idea does not work’, etc. Go and do. Go and try. Go and CHANGE.”

After his PhD he was awarded the prestigious Katzir Scholarship, which was concieved in the 2000’s to recruit selected researchers for the Israeli Defence industry. He accepted an offer from Rafael, and was recruited to investigate and develop Thermal Batteries, “a topic that was absolutely new to me.” During his first few years working in Rafael, Dario became an expert in many fields, including Powder Processing, Molten Salts, Electrochemistry, Batteries, Ceramic Materials, Pyrotechnic Materials, Electrodes, Separators, and many others. Most important, “I became one of the worldwide leaders in the Thermal Battery field. Thanks to many inventions I made on materials and in batteries in general, I learned about Intellectual Properties and Patents. In Rafael, I wrote more than 10 patents – many of them are used used in Israel for critical systems (for instance, the well-known Iron Dome rocket that protects us includes a Thermal Batery based on a special metal lithium technology I have invented in my first patent during my second year in Rafael)”.

While leading multidisciplinary researchers and engineers to design, develop, and produce high-quality batteries, Dario mastered Mechanical Engineering, Product Design, Production Scale Up Processes, Process Engineering for Production, Quality Control Processes, and many others additional fields that we did not learn during our studies in Chemical Engineering, but they complement us and shape our knowledge. After 3 years he became an R&D Manager, and after additional 3 years he became the Director of the Energy Department in Rafael, responsible for ~100 people. “Besides managing skills, I learned a lot in the field of business, contracts, budgets, and human resources. And… a lot of psychology in the human behavior field as well. This gave me all that I needed to go out and start my own startup company.” In the middle of his MBA at Technion, together with two colleagues, Dario co-founded a startup company which was the first company in the world to start developing and commercializing a new fuel cell technology, which they called Anion-Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (AEMFCs). “I became the pioneer of this technology in the world and, with that, the worldwide expert in the technology. During my years of experience leading a startup, I learned a lot about business development, venture capital, recruiting funding, collaboration paths with the world (academy and industry), business plans, labs development, and startup culture. After we sold the startup, I joined the Technion as a Professor, starting a new step in my lab, with academic experience. To the academy world, I bring all my 25+ years of industrial experience in many fields, working with many multidisciplinary teams, and this gives me (and my team), an extraordinary advantage.”

The Dekel Research Group – a diverse, multinational, and amazing group (English is the group’s language).

Prof. Dekel’s research group at the Technion Chemical Engineering Department focuses on Electrochemical Devices based on Anion-Exchange Membranes. “Specifically, we develop state-of-the-art Fuel Cells, Electrolyzers, and Redox-Flow Batteries. Together with Renewable Energy, our work and breakthroughs advance us towards the future of Green Energy, which will save the planet from self-destruction due to clime change.” 

We need Fuel Cells and Batteries in our life. Five years from now, we will have endless number of large devices that need high power and energy, from electric and autonomous vehicles to autonomous robots in streets, in the air, and inside in restaurants, stores and homes serving, preparing food, cleaning, repairing, taking care, and providing companionship. All these new autonomous units require huge energy density from fuel cells to work independently for months without recharging. 

Prof. Dekel is the pioneer of this AEMFCs technology, so many universities and researchers in the world look forward to working with him and his group. “This allows us to keep leading and mainly allows my students to have the opportunity to collaborate and work with many leading universities and companies from different countries. It gives them an extraordinary experience not just in the research and development fields but also in leading collaborations and managing projects, while at the same time polishing their oral and written academic, business, and language skills.”

A conceptual illustration of a high temperature anion exchange membrane fuel cell (HT-AEMFC) used to charge an electric vehicle and power your house (and all the neighborhood).

Prof. Dekel’s group leads this technology worldwide, with many innovations and breakthroughs in many fields. To mention a few, they developed the first (and still the only) numerical model that can predict the lifetime of the AEMFCs. This is of critical importance in the field, as it helps to design cells, understand the ell operation, and optimize the operating conditions so the cell can work long enough to power, for instance, a car, bus, or even a train. They were also the first to understand, prove, and explain the primary degradation mechanism of AEMFC polymers and membranes during fuel cell operation. This breakthrough allowed polymer chemists to design and synthesize stable polymers and membranes for this technology. Prof. Dekel’s group is currently developing a new process to separate oxygen from air that will disrupt the oxygen manufacturing industry. This may be used as a small portable oxygen generator that we can all use at home for medical treatment, etc. Dekel’s group also developed the most stable functional chemical groups that withstand the environment of the fuel cell during operation. The new materials were patented and they are now in the process of starting a new startup company based on these inventions.

Students at the lab of Prof. Dario Dekel. The Dekel group was the first to understand, prove, and explain the primary degradation mechanism of AEMFC polymers and membranes during fuel cell operation.

To undergraduate students interested in the energy field, Dario strongly suggests learning all possible courses that urge them to think out of the box: “if we can all learn to think differently, we can then learn everything specific we need later.” He adds, “ignore everyone that tells you that ‘you cannot’, ‘it is impossible’, ‘I already did it and this idea does not work’, etc. Go and do. Go and try. Go and CHANGE. It is always impossible… until it is done.”