Full steam ahead: Where hydrogen is already in use
The European Green Deal sets the direction: The EU economy is to become sustainable. Hydrogen, especially green hydrogen, plays a central role in achieving these goals. The EU has set this out in its Hydrogen Strategy 2020. Even if the key to a hydrogen economy, namely the economic production of large quantities of renewable – so-called green – hydrogen, still requires a great amount of commitment, development work and investment, the development of applications for hydrogen is in full swing worldwide. Once the challenges of production and logistics have been solved, many marketable applications await.
The decarbonisation of industry is an important component of the Green Deal. The EU plans to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from its industries, and hydrogen is becoming a key element in this process. In steel and cement production, for example, two of the industries that emit the most CO2, hydrogen can replace fossil fuels. The iron and steel industry itself is currently responsible for 7-9 per cent the direct global CO2 emissions. Another sector in which the EU has high hopes for hydrogen is mobility. The Commission aims to reduce the emissions of the transport sector by 90 per cent until 2050 – in addition to battery-electric cars, hydrogen will play a significant role in the rail, freight and aviation sectors. Hydrogen will also play a role in the building heat: Hydrogen can replace natural gas in the energy supply, which reduces CO2 emissions. The building sector is currently responsible for around 17-18 per cent of the global CO2 emissions.
Between 2025 and 2030, the EU wants hydrogen to become an integral part of an integrated energy system. This requires the installation of electrolysers for renewable hydrogen with a capacity of at least 100-120 GW, which will produce up to 10 million tonnes of green hydrogen in the EU, according to the political targets.
In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is supporting the Kopernikus projects, one of the largest research initiatives on the topic of the energy transition. The Ariadne project is investigating and analysing various energy transition strategies, including hydrogen, and developing measures for policymakers. Adrian Odenweller is conducting a research project as part of Ariadne at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and evaluates the situation of hydrogen: “Hydrogen is in competition with other energy sources. Ultimately, it is a question of the price and who covers the additional costs for the energy-intensive production of green hydrogen. In order to make green hydrogen competitive, we need support programmes, regulatory certainty and a high CO2 price in the long term.”
“We are observing that many players are still a bit reserved in order to avoid a first-mover disadvantage. There is also a certain amount of investment uncertainty because some of the political and legal framework conditions have not yet been finalised or are completely missing. By hesitating, however, there is also a risk of letting others take over the market. I therefore believe that sitting back is very dangerous. In the end, every participant has to think about it: How do I change my energy supply and processes towards more environmentally friendly alternatives so that fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced?” says Dr. Fabian Pfaffenberger, Managing Director of Zentrum Wasserstoff.Bayern (H2.B). The coordination centre initiated by the state of Bavaria aims to strengthen the federal state’s hydrogen economy and connect stakeholders on a national or international level. H2.B has also been the conceptual sponsor of the HYDROGEN DIALOGUE in Nuremberg since its inception.
Out of the niche: Power generation on site
High self-sufficiency and low maintenance requirements make hydrogen fuel cells a robust system for decentralised power generation: When tens of thousands of hard rock fans make their way to the north of Germany every year to celebrate together at the Wacken Open Air, they probably have no idea that the power supply at the festival site is now partly provided CO2-free by hydrogen fuel cells.
“The organisers want to offer their visitors more and more sustainable solutions, because the energy supply at many open air festivals is still based on diesel. Several 10,000 litres of diesel consumption per weekend are not uncommon at major events,” explains Björn Ledergerber from the fuel cell manufacturer SFC Energy, based in Brunnthal near Munich.
At Wacken, things are different. The festival has started a co-operation with GP Joule, a specialist in the development and implementation of sustainable energy concepts. Two H2 Gensets from SFC Energy are being used. These are environmentally friendly, flexible and mobile power generators based on hydrogen fuel cell technology and are used particularly in areas without a conventional power supply. During the festival, GP JOULE will use these units to supply its containers with the necessary energy for lighting, electricity and heating. And the hydrogen required for this process also comes from the eFarm project in North Friesland, a completely renewable hydrogen project.
It’s not just about creating a more “sustainable” festival experience for visitors. “Fuel cells offer economic advantages. With a service life of 5 to 15 years, fuel cells require less maintenance than diesel generators. Other advantages of the systems at events are, of course, noise and exhaust emissions,” says Ledergerber.
Less publicised, but certainly important, is the use of fuel cells to generate electricity for critical infrastructure: Mobile phone masts in rural areas or in the event of natural disasters that are powered by a fuel cell – often combined with solar modules – are a reliable and low-maintenance solution. “This market is not small,” says Ledergerber, “Several hundred thousand engines are installed in this billion-euro market every year.”
Hydrogen in the aviation industry
A significantly higher proportion of global CO2 emissions than the power supply for critical infrastructures comes from aviation. It accounts for 3.5 per cent of man-made climate change. CO2 emissions account for as much as a third of it. For this reason, there are many projects worldwide that aim to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation. In addition to biofuels, the use of hydrogen and hybrid-electric propulsion systems is also being developed. This is already being achieved on a small scale with considerable success – and the use of a fuel cell from SFC Energy.
Levitum has the aim of building the world’s longest-range eVTOL drone with a take-off weight of less than 25 kg. The team, consisting of Master’s and Bachelor’s degree students from the Technical University of Munich, is relying on hydrogen fuel cells and high-power hybrid batteries. “We use hybrid batteries for take-off and landing because we need five times as much power. In the horizontal flight, when less energy is needed, the hydrogen fuel cell can recharge the batteries with the surplus energy,” explains Cornelius Kauffmann, co-founder of Levitum. Their prototype “Mercurius I” is designed to fly over 300 kilometres without refuelling. The hydrogen ensures the long range. “Most drones that are currently being built are mainly powered by batteries. However, batteries have the problem that they are quite heavy for the amount of energy they store. In aviation, any additional weight costs more energy and limits the range and flight times. With hydrogen and the fuel cell, our drone has two to three times more energy per weight on the entire powertrain and therefore also a significantly greater range,” explains Kauffmann.
But hydrogen not only offers advantages in terms of weight: “Particularly in applications where drones are used at high capacity, electrically powered drones have to be on the ground for 60-90 minutes to be recharged. Our hydrogen tank can be refuelled in under five minutes, which can make their use more economical than with batteries,” explains Kauffmann.
And the signs are also good for hydrogen in the large-scale passenger aviation sector – for example with the “328H2-FC” project, an initiative led by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in collaboration with H2FLY, Deutsche Aircraft, Diehl Aviation and six other partners. The aim of the project is to develop a fuel cell system with an output of 1.5 MW for use in aviation, specifically in regional aircraft with 40 seats. This project received considerable support at the beginning of 2022 when the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection (BMWK) provided a funding of around 30 million euros.
Prof André Thess, Head of the DLR Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, emphasises the importance of this development: “With a hydrogen fuel cell that generates more than one megawatt of power, we are opening the door to climate-neutral passenger aviation without CO2 emissions. At the DLR site in Stuttgart, we will be testing the new technology comprehensively before embarking on aircraft integration and initial flight tests. By the end of the decade, these passenger aircraft could already be in commercial operation.”
At the same time, the DO 228 FFC project is developing a propulsion system for smaller aircraft with up to 18 passengers that combines a 600-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell with a gas turbine.
The biggest lever for decarbonisation: industrial process heat
Another approach is taken by Daniel Gosse, Head of Marketing and Academy at Bosch Industriekessel. The company has been manufacturing steam and hot water boilers for the generation of process heat for more than 150 years. Over 120,000 steam, hot water and heating boilers have been supplied worldwide – the latest as hybrid solutions for utilising conventional energy sources together with hydrogen or as pure hydrogen systems. “Around 44 per cent of the total energy demand in Germany comes from industry and trade. According to the Federal Statistical Office, over 53 per cent of this goes into thermal processes,” says Gosse. “This means that, in terms of CO2 emissions, we are talking about a quarter of Germany’s energy requirements. This means that with several thousand industrial installations, Germany has a huge lever for the energy transition.”
Gosse is convinced that CO2 emissions could be significantly reduced by optimising and decarbonising process heat. Process heat plays a central role in many industrial processes, particularly in the food, chemical and building materials industries. For their part, these industries are responsible for a considerable proportion of energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
Green hydrogen as an alternative fuel for process heat has the potential to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes. Pilot projects are currently being carried out in various regions around the world, particularly in industrial parks and areas with intensive energy production. One example of this is in Wunsiedel, Franconia, where an electrolyser with a capacity of 8.75 MW has been installed. Customers for the green hydrogen produced are the regional economy – from the glass and ceramics industry to transport companies and automotive suppliers. In future, surplus hydrogen will be used in a 5 MW boiler to supply heat and for drying wood in a neighbouring sawmill. There are also plans to combine district heating with electromobility and a decentralised energy supply in the municipality.
Hydrogen also serves as an efficient energy storage system here. Because one of the challenges for energy supply in practice is the changing the availability of renewable energy, influenced by the weather, time of day and annual cycle. On sunny and windy days, electricity with an efficiency of over 99 per cent can be used directly for high-temperature applications in facilities and production. During the colder months, on days with a lower energy supply and at night, a supplementary, CO2-neutral energy source is usually required. “Hydrogen is a possible storage medium to compensate this volatility and create a backup,” says Prof Dr Ulrich Ulmer, Professor of Hydrogen Infrastructure at Nuremberg Institute of Technology Georg Simon Ohm.
As simple as the use of hydrogen in industrial boilers sounds, it is not possible to operate steam boilers with hydrogen without making technical adjustments. The specific properties of hydrogen during combustion, particularly in terms of volume, temperature and burn-off velocity, need special expertise, says Gosse. The hydrogen burners are complex and require a sophisticated control system. To reduce NOx emissions when burning hydrogen, exhaust gas recirculation is used, in which oxygen-poor exhaust gas is mixed with combustion air, which reduces the flame temperature. Flashback arrestors prevent re-ignition in fuel lines. As there are still no fixed regulations for hydrogen firing in industrial boilers, each system must be tested individually, including explosion protection and material selection. Exhaust gas technologies for natural gas can also be used for hydrogen, and condensing technology can generally be used to further increase energy efficiency.
The demand for hydrogen steam boilers is high – “from anyone who has hydrogen available,” says Gosse. “That’s the decisive factor at the moment. We are often asked whether we can also supply the hydrogen. We can’t do that.” In the long term, the Bosch employee sees the gas network as a central part of the logistics chain for hydrogen. “In the future, hydrogen will have to come via the natural gas pipeline. In the long term, I see a multivalent energy scenario in which hydrogen plays a relevant role because it is an excellent storage medium. And secondly, it has the advantage that we can distribute it very efficiently via the existing network infrastructure. With small adjustments, we can get hydrogen into the area.”
Climate-positive vodka: Scottish distillery relies on hydrogen
The fact that the combination of renewable energy, electrolysis and hydrogen steam boilers works and results in products with a negative CO2 equivalent is proven by clever Scottish whisky distillers. The Stirling brothers are very enthusiastic about hydrogen for their whisky distillery: “Our environmentally friendly, hydrogen-compatible boiler generates the vapour we need for distillation. We distil the world’s first climate-friendly gin and vodka, Nadar. Nadar has a climate impact of -1.54 CO2e per bottle and is used worldwide in sustainable cocktail menus and climate-friendly drinks,” says Iain Stirling, one of the brothers who own the Arbikie Highland Estate, on which the Arbikie Distillery of the same name is located.
This whisky distillery, which claims to be the first in the world to produce climate-neutral (in this case even climate-positive) high-proof spirits, is a direct result of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Since then, the Arbikie Distillery has succeeded in implementing an energy system that runs entirely on green hydrogen.The newly installed system includes a 1 MW wind turbine, an electrolyser for hydrogen production, storage units and a hydrogen boiler system.This makes it possible to move away from conventional distillation processes and instead switch to emission-free green hydrogen produced on site.
This project has been funded by the UK government, which is providing more than £11 million to support up to four spirits producers in the transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen and biogas. This scheme is part of the Green Distillers competition, which is part of the UK Government’s Net Zero Innovation portfolio.
“We estimate that the introduction of green hydrogen could reduce our carbon footprint by up to 80 per cent. We will be the first distillery in the world to use green hydrogen, pioneering a new way of powering distilleries in Scotland and beyond,” says Iain Stirling. He sees great potential for the future of hydrogen utilisation – as long as it is green hydrogen: “Hydrogen can provide a clean energy solution and therefore it is very important to our national energy transition. We are very lucky in Scotland to have various renewable energy sources, including wave and wind energy in abundance. Our Scottish Government is very focused on future energy systems and in particular renewable energy and our potential to supply hydrogen to our European neighbours such as Germany.”
Looking to the future, Ulmer is also confident that the hydrogen run-up will succeed: “By 2050, 12-22 per cent of final energy consumption will be covered by hydrogen.” The examples show that thinking outside the box and networking between research, innovators and industry is essential for the run-up of the hydrogen economy. “The platform for exchanging ideas and networking is the HYDROGEN DIALOGUE, which will bring the global hydrogen community together in Nuremberg on 4 and 5 December 2024,” says Jasmin Rutka, Director HYDROGEN DIALOGUE at NürnbergMesse.