Hydrogen is more than an oxyhydrogen reaction in a chemistry lab. The light gas can move heavy lift transport, vehicles, trains, ships, and cars, power satellites, heat homes, and maybe even save the climate. In any case, it offers a wealth of opportunities to promote climate-friendly innovation.
Hydrogen: Hydrogen: element with the atomic number 1, symbol H, first period. Meanwhile, word is getting out beyond the chemistry lab that hydrogen and fuel cell technology can significantly contribute to the success of the energy transition.
Electromobility: the green is fading
Until recently, things looked quite different: Electric cars were previously considered the number-one environmentally friendly alternative to the internal combustion engine. However, their disadvantages prevented them from really succeeding in the market. Above all, the limited range of a few hundred kilometers (between 300 to 600 kilometers, depending on the model) and the long charging times (between 30 minutes and 14 hours, depending on the charging power of the charging station, the battery capacity and charging technology of the electric car) make battery vehicles unattractive to many consumers.
It also loses points with regard to sustainability. The production of lithium-ion batteries for e-cars requires raw materials that must be almost completely imported, including cobalt, lithium and nickel. Working conditions in the manufacturing countries do not always comply with local standards. In the case of lithium, price increases are expected soon, as rising demand meets a limited supply. In addition, the question, “what should happen to used batteries?” has not yet been solved satisfactorily. Overall, electric cars are still in need of improvement in terms of everyday usability, manufacturing conditions, environmental friendliness and disposal.
Hydrogen: as green as it gets (for now)
The need to improve electric cars revived the long-known idea of hydrogen mobility. The battery-powered electric car’s disadvantages are therefore the hydrogen car’s advantages: Refueling lasts no longer than with a gasoline or diesel vehicle and is just as simple; with a full tank, depending on the model, you can travel up to 800 kilometers. The costs are manageable: One kilogram of hydrogen, sufficient for 100 kilometers, costs 9.50 euros at the filling station. An important advantage of hydrogen is also that its filling stations are not dependent on external energy suppliers and, therefore, in principle all countries can provide themselves with energy, regardless of their raw material deposits. That means: No more problems with oil exporting countries and no shifting of environmental damage to the countries that produce the batteries.
Fuel cell vehicles do not constantly drive with a battery weighing several hundred kilos (several tons in trucks), thus eliminating the aforementioned problems in the procurement and disposal of raw materials. Quite the opposite: Unlike lithium, etc., hydrogen is available in almost unlimited quantities because it can be made from a wide variety of substances—from water, for example. In addition, hydrogen produced with renewable energy is completely carbon-free. When it is turned back into electricity, the only waste product is water. Hydrogen is also easy to store and transport, making it possible to exploit the full potential of renewable energy sources.
Bright market outlook
For this reason, hydrogen technology is now being taken seriously beyond groups of experts. The fuel cell is nothing new; its functional principle has been known since 1839, and automobile companies already started with intensive research and development at the turn of the millennium. But fuels like wood, coal and oil were easier to use. Nowadays, regenerative energy sources generate large amounts of electricity, which can best be used for water electrolysis. Only in the course of climate change, the climate goals and the expansion of renewable energies will their potential be seriously exploited to initiate innovations that can significantly reduce CO2 emissions.
According to a forecast by the statistics portal statista and the VDMA, German Engineering Federation, the market for fuel cells is expected to reach 2.6 billion euros in 2022—that would be 26 times more than in 2016. Japan is leading the way for hydrogen and fuel cells. By 2030, the country wants to build a global supply chain and a large market for hydrogen at home. The government planners envisage 800,000 fuel cell vehicles and five million fuel cells for homes.
From smartphones to space technology
Beyond the automotive industry, fuel cell technology can also be put to good use. A distinction is made between portable, mobile and stationary applications: Portable applications include the power supply of small electronic consumers such as laptops and smartphones. Mobile applications refer to fuel cell technology that is used to drive motor vehicles, ships and trains, or for the on-board power supply of boats and satellites. Stationary applications refer to systems for the energy supply of individual houses up to systems for the energy supply of entire residential areas. Fuel cell heaters generate heat and electricity at the same time. That makes them energy efficient; in addition, they are quiet and low in emissions, mostly water vapor comes from the chimney.
The renaissance of volatile gas opens up a great need for innovation and requires considerable sums of money up front for research and development investment. Scientists from various disciplines are now investigating the subject of hydrogen, which has points of contact with virtually all areas of life sciences, engineering and environmental sciences. In order to find out which fields of research are the focus of science, the Swiss investment analytics company ALPORA has developed the big-data analysis tool NETCULATOR.
The NETCULATOR evaluates several thousand scientific publications simultaneously using the latest algorithms in order to identify current research and innovation trends, the so-called research fronts. In this way, 21 current research fronts were identified in the „Hydrogen“ topic area.
Hydrogen bond comlexes
Gasification energy systems
New fuel cell concepts
New anode/ cathode solutions
New hydrolysis approaches
Microbial fuel cells
New storage solutions
MOS2 as catalysator in fuel cells
New membrane concepts
New solutions for combustion engines
New sensor concepts for hydrogen
New GC3N4 photocatalysts
New methanol catalysts
MgH2 alloys as storage solutions for hydrogen
Embrittlement characteristics of steels
Probe detection solutions
Interactions of chemical complexes
For example, sensor concepts (subject 14) play a role in hydrogen technology in order to detect and eliminate losses as quickly as possible during the transport of the very volatile and reactive gas.
Criticism of hydrogen technology
However, there are also some points that are criticized about hydrogen technology. These include, for example, the relatively poor energy efficiency „well-to-wheel“ – i.e. from the primary energy source to the drive wheel of the car. In order to produce hydrogen CO2-neutral and use it for the climate, it must be produced from water using electricity from renewable energy sources. A lot of energy is lost in the process. At the end of the day, only about 15% of the energy initially used can be used to drive the wheels.
Another disadvantage compared to conventional fuels such as petrol is the larger tank volume required. Although hydrogen has about three times as much energy per unit weight as gasoline, hydrogen contains one third less energy per unit volume than gasoline. Accordingly, although almost thirty kilos of petrol fit into a forty-litre tank, only two and a half kilos of hydrogen do. In addition, relatively much platinum is required for the production of fuel cells, which is also one of the very scarce raw materials. The network of hydrogen filling stations is also still very extensive in most European countries. Experts assume that the investment costs for the construction of a hydrogen filling station will amount to approximately €1 million.
Despite all the advantages of hydrogen technology, the disadvantages that occur at the same time must not be neglected.
Hydrogen, here and now, and in the future
The technology of the future has already arrived in the present—the climate debates leave practically no other choice. Here are some examples:
Polish bus manufacturer Solaris unveiled the Urbino 12 hydrogen fuel cell bus in June and gained the public transport operator SASA Bolzano from South Tyrol as its first customer, which bought twelve of them.
The Belgian company Van Hool has also been producing fuel cell buses since 2005. Hydrogen busses from Koningshooikt have been driving around Cologne and Wuppertal for several weeks.
The Coradia iLint from the French manufacturer Alstom is a locomotive powered by two fuel cells on the roof. After a test drive, the Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund RMV ordered 27 Coradia iLint trains that should go into service from 2022 onwards. The stacks for Alstom’s new fuel cell trains are supplied by Hydrogenics, a Canadian developer and manufacturer of fuel cells.
The automotive supplier Bosch expects that by 2030, up to 20 percent of all electric vehicles worldwide will be powered by fuel cells. To be prepared for this, the group, together with the Swedish start-up PowerCell Sweden AB, is developing fuel cell stacks ready for series production, which has increased the share price significantly.
Ballard Power Systems
The Canadian company Ballard Power Systems, founded almost 40 years ago, mainly produces fuel cells for heavy trucks, buses, trains, forklifts and ships, but is also increasingly active in the passenger vehicle sector. For example, the Volkswagen subsidiary Audi is working with Ballard Power to develop the h-tron quattro concept. The h-tron is a concept car that is solely powered electrically with hydrogen as the source of energy and, according to Audi, shows “the great potential of fuel cell technology.” In June, Ballard Power announced a new generation of fuel cells with improved product performance and lower life cycle costs, and together with its new Chinese partner Weichai Power, the company plans to build fuel cell propulsion systems to serve the Asian market.
Additionally, in Scandinavia fuel cell technology is making great strides, for example in Norway, as a propulsion system in the shipping industry. The largest enterprise is Nel Hydrogen, a company that has been producing electrolyzers and hydrogen filling stations for almost 100 years. Nel is also working on the market launch of the RotoLyzer, which is regarded as a virtual revolution in hydrogen production. The mobile system is almost a hundred times smaller than previous systems and can be transported by truck if required.
The H2 Mobility consortium is also currently building Nel filling stations. H2 Mobility, founded in 2015, is a merger of the companies Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and TOTAL with the goal of establishing a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure for supplying fuel-cell-powered passenger cars in Germany.
Just like Nel, the British company ITM Power has specialized in electrolysis technologies, power-to-gas plants and H2 filling stations.
The lightest of all gases is currently becoming a heavyweight on the subject of climate protection: The European Union wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent by the middle of the century. In Germany, traffic should emit almost no more pollutants by then. This can only succeed if traffic is no longer runs on gasoline or diesel, but covers its energy needs with electricity, be it electric or via hydrogen.
Read the entire Innovation Insight – Wasserstoff-Hydrogen Dec 2019 in pdf-format.