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Alternative drives

The rock star that is hydrogen

It is considered elementary for the energy transition: green hydrogen. But whether this hydrogen really becomes the decisive drive energy of the future in the mobility sector also depends on how efficiently it can be stored and transported. One promising option, although still the subject of critical debate among scientists, is the LOHC process in which millions are currently being invested.

One kilogram of hydrogen contains about three times as much energy as one kilogram of petroleum and no carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides are released during its consumption. Industry and politicians are therefore pinning high hopes on green hydrogen. Last year, EU Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermanns called it the ‘rock star among the clean energies of the future.’ Hydrogen is considered the key or at least an essential component on the way to achieving climate neutrality.

Hydrogen offers huge opportunities: it enables renewable energies to be stored and transported and makes them usable. It also makes a contribution to decarbonisation in industrial sectors such as steel and cement production, which are otherwise difficult to decarbonise. A car can travel up to 600 kilometres on just one tank of fuel and the tank can be refilled in less than five minutes. And it is ideally suited for heavy-duty transport such as trucks, buses, aircraft and ships, which – due to the required ranges and the loads to be carried – cannot be operated  solely by battery power, unlike cars.

Birgit Scheppat is Professor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at RheinMain University of Applied Sciences (Foto: RheinMain University of Applied Sciences)
Birgit Scheppat is Professor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at RheinMain University of Applied Sciences (Foto: RheinMain University of Applied Sciences)

‘Hydrogen-based fuel cells and batteries use the same process. But batteries are heavy and take a long time to charge. And this is simply not feasible when it comes to heavy commercial vehicles. This is where hydrogen comes into play: it can be complementary and you can combine the best elements from both systems,’ explains Prof. Dr. Birgit Scheppat,, Professor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology at RheinMain University of Applied Sciences and former chair of the H2BZ initiative.

LOHC technology: reducing complexity

LOHC Technologies

However, whether or not hydrogen will play a key role in the emissions-free drive mix of the future is dependent not least on solving the problem of how to distribute it. ‘The one big disadvantage of hydrogen is that it is the gas with the lowest density, which makes transporting and storing it difficult and costly. So far you needed high pressure or it had to be liquefied. Both options require expensive infrastructure and they are difficult to implement on a large scale,’ explains Dr Daniel Teichmann, founder and managing director of Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies.

Dr. Daniel Teichmann
Dr. Daniel Teichmann, founder and managing director of Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies (Foto: Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies)

One solution could be storing it in Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers (LOHC). Instead of liquefying hydrogen or storing it under pressure, you bind it to an oil-like substance in a chemical process. The key advantage of this technology is that hydrogen stored in this way is compatible with the current infrastructure for liquid fuels such as petrol. This means that the hydrogen can be transported in conventional road tankers or oil tankers. It also means that it is no longer flammable, making transportation and storage much safer. ‘With LOHC, we can reduce overall complexity and offer the very economical option to store hydrogen and transport it over long distances. Because even in 2045, regardless of a possible pipeline system, we will flexibly meet large parts of our energy needs through imports from around the world’ says Teichmann.

Five tonnes of hydrogen per day

At the Chempark in Dormagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, the company is currently building the world’s largest industrial-scale LOHC storage facility. Up to now, only small pilot plants to prove that the technology works have been constructed. But scaling up is an important step in making green hydrogen competitive, says Teichmann. It remains much more expensive than fossil energies and has not yet been deployed commercially. ‘In the new facility, we will process about five tonnes per day and can thus considerably reduce the costs per kilo of stored hydrogen,’ explains Teichmann. For him, the fact that hydrogen has up to now not been cost-effective has not been a technical issue, but a regulatory one. His desire is for politicians to remove the existing hurdles and get a plan of action in place, e.g. in relation to future CO2 pricing.

Looking at the mobility sector rather than hydrogen demanders in industry, Teichmann sees LOHC technology primarily as a way to supply filling stations. Together with partners, however, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is also researching maritime applications: The focus here is on on-board LOHC/fuel cell powertrains for ships, meaning the green hydrogen is released from the LOHC "onboard" and used directly as fuel.

Comprehensive service network

Prof. Scheppat, however, does have some criticisms of LOHC: ‘LOHC is ideally suited for transporting large quantities of hydrogen. But in order to be able to use the hydrogen at the destination, it needs to be converted with the help of high temperatures. And the chemical substances also need to be recycled. Neither of these aspects is easy. The best solution is pipelines, but until we have those, LOHC is a good solution for the time being.’

After all, it will be some time before there is a nationwide network for hydrogen in Europe. ‘Hydrogen pipelines are more expensive and more complex than our technology,’ says Teichmann. ‘The network of pipelines that is gradually being installed can be complemented at all levels with LOHC technology. This means all consumers not connected to a network can be supplied.’

Germany wants to be climate-neutral by 2045 and be a pioneering technology supplier of the future. Scheppat is calling for hydrogen to play an important role in the transformation from fossil to renewable energies. ‘The industry is in a position to get moving. I expect that combustion engine and hybrid cars will be banned in a few years and hydrogen will come to largely dominate mobility. A hydrogen infrastructure must be in place by that point. I only hope that small and medium-sized businesses in Germany will recognise the opportunities offered by this technology in good time. After all, this country has some very good component suppliers.

As Teichmann states, the transformation is a huge task. So much so, he emphasises, that it is the largest the industrial world has ever undertaken. To do it all by 2045 is ambitious, but feasible – but of course, there is no alternative.

Nikolas Iwan, managing director of H2 Mobility
Nikolas Iwan, managing director of H2 Mobility

‘We're building a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure for Germany because we are convinced that using hydrogen as a drive energy can significantly reduce road traffic emissions. But the infrastructure needs to be in place otherwise no vehicles can be sold. A public filling station network is what is needed for hydrogen mobility in Germany. Our aim in this respect is to produce green hydrogen from 100% renewable sources.’

Prof. Agnes Jocher, Professor of Sustainable Future Mobility at the Technical University of Munich
Prof. Agnes Jocher, Professor of Sustainable Future Mobility at the Technical University of Munich

‘Green hydrogen has its place in the drive mix of the future, the goal of which is to reduce carbon emissions. Green hydrogen could contribute to reducing carbon emissions in areas that have high energy demands yet few alternatives, such as aviation. The potential of green hydrogen for aviation still needs to be studied in depth.’

Jürgen Nadler, Chief Marketing Officer Keyou GmbH
Jürgen Nadler, Chief Marketing Officer Keyou GmbH

‘There cannot be a sustainable energy and mobility revolution without green hydrogen. We need to start now before others do. With our drive technology, we are continuing to further adapt the combustion engine for the use of hydrogen, combining the advantages of a classic engine, such as low costs, a long service life, robustness, short refuelling times and familiar ranges, with the fuel of the future, CO2-free hydrogen.’

Werner Diwald, Chair of the Board at the German Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (DWV)
Werner Diwald, Chair of the Board at the German Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (DWV)

‘We must lay the foundation for a powerful green hydrogen economy and industry today. In this way, we have the chance to instigate an economic miracle that will create hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs. It is therefore essential that we immediately adopt the necessary regulatory framework to ensure a successful market launch that is carried out with foresight and offers secure investment potential.’

Dr. Yann Girard, Director of Economic Consulting, Continental Europe, Oxford Economics
Dr. Yann Girard, Director of Economic Consulting, Continental Europe, Oxford Economics

´Hydrogen will be an important building block for the energy transition and the decarbonization of the industry. Thanks to its function as an energy storage medium, unused electricity from renewable plants can be made usable for hydrogen production and, at the same time, the required expansion of the transmission grid can be reduced. In order to achieve the Paris climate targets, however, hydrogen should necessarily be green, i.e. produced from renewable energies. Since the production of hydrogen requires a lot of energy, existing energy should first be used directly where it is needed before it is used to produce green hydrogen.`

Energy4Mobility ExpertTalk

The upcoming Energy4Mobility ExpertTalk will also focus on the issue of hydrogen. On 24 June 2021 from 3 p.m.-5.30 p.m., experts from various disciplines will talk about individual topics in the field of hydrogen at the invitation of Messe Frankfurt, followed by a panel discussion. The event will be streamed live.

Register here

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