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A gas with considerable potential
Transport, heat, steel production: Hydrogen could soon replace fossil fuels in a number of sectors

Hyrdogen is being heralded as the energy source of the future. The hope is that the gas will drive the energy transition, as it harbors the potential to replace fossil fuels in multiple sectors. Numerous research projects are dedicated to exploring the options for its application, storage, transport and generation.

However, despite this sense of optimism, there is still much to be done before the gas becomes widely available. Energy-intensive production, for one: Until now, hydrogen has been produced with the help of natural gas by ‘steam reforming’. But this creates CO2 as a by-product which means the ‘emissions buck’ is ultimately passed on. It is possible to produce the gas in an environmentally friendly way, if during the power-to-gas process excess power from renewables, such as from wind farms or solar power systems, is used during electrolysis. The issue here is that power-to-gas processes are still expensive and there is a lack of necessary infrastructure.

On the way to "green hydrogen"

en:former - Grüner Wasserstoff

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So far, the production of hydrogen is quite energy-intensive, emission-free processes are still expensive or have not been proven. Click through the image to find out more about the various production processes.

Production from fossil energy sources

Hydrogen is currently primarily produced from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, petrol or coal. Natural gas is the most frequently used raw material, and the process itself is by far the cheapest. This is followed by production from liquid hydrocarbons and coal. The disadvantage of these processes: Greenhouse gases are emitted during production.

Secondary use: By-product in the chemical industry

More climate-friendly is the use of hydrogen, resulting as a by-product in the chemical industry. Hydrogen, which is often not used so far, is produced in various processes. In this case, further use may make sense. Also the emissions resulting from the production process are not taken into account, since it is merely a by-product.

Production from biomass

Hydrogen can also be produced from biomass, with fermented biomass or biogas serving as the starting product. However, these processes are currently still in the pilot phase and are negligible in terms of quantity.

Production from renewables: Power-to-Gas

Already today hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water. Electrolysis processes are currently being used on an industrial scale, but with the expansion of renewables they could become much more important. The idea: Surplus electricity from wind and solar power plants is used to separate water into its components oxygen and hydrogen. With the so-called Power-to-Gas process, renewable energy could be stored in the long term in the form of hydrogen or methane.

Storing and transporting hydrogen is also laborious. Nevertheless, hydrogen-based technologies are finding their way into more and more sectors – faster in some and slower in others. Japan and South Korea are front runners in this area. In the following overview, en:former will shed some light on the developments when it comes to cars, commercial vehicles, industry and heat supply.

Cars

Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota has been mass producing a fuel cell car named Mirai since 2014 and, according to its own figures (as of July 2019), has sold around 10,000 units of this model worldwide. The second mass-produced car, the Honda Clarity, is also the product of Japanese design, and the country will be home to 800,000 fuel cell cars by 2030 – at least if governmental goals are to be believed (in German).

Over the next five years, Toyota plans to increase fuel cell production to 30,000 units per year and also supply other companies with its technology. German car manufacturer BMW, for example, is planning on launching a fuel cell SUV by 2025 and is therefore cooperating with the second-largest car manufacturer in the world.

In Germany, hydrogen vehicles are still very much a niche product. Although a proud total of five car models with a fuel cell drive or a combination of fuel cell and battery are currently available for purchase, according to the Spiegel Online website (in German), only 392 H2 vehicles were registered with the German Motor Transport Authority compared with 83,175 EVs and a total of 57.3 million motor vehicles. The problem is the infrastructure: There are 71 hydrogen filling stations nationwide – but approximately 1,000 would be needed to make fuel cell cars ‘really interesting’ for consumers, believes Peter Fuß from the consulting company Ernst & Young.

South Korea is also turning to hydrogen: By 2040, 6.2 million fuel cell cars will be on the roads. The Hyundai Motor Group is aiming to become the global market leader in hydrogen propulsion: Half a million fuel cell vehicles and 200,000 mobile power stations for ships, forklifts and other commercial vehicles are to be built each year through to 2030 (in German). When talking of the future, Chung Eui-sun, Vice President of the Group, even refers to the ‘hydrogen society,’ which Hyundai intends to spearhead.

Commercial vehicles

Hydrogen could unleash enormous potential, especially in the commercial vehicle sector, where electric drives are not economically viable due to the extreme battery weight. Hyundai is intent on delivering the first of 1,000 hydrogen-powered trucks to Switzerland (in German) before the year is up, a large part of which will be put into operation by the local food retailer Coop. Bosch is also developing an H2 truck with a range of 1,300 kilometers in cooperation with the American start-up company Up Nikola Motors.

In rail transport, hydrogen technology can predominantly help where sections of track are not electrified. The world’s first hydrogen train is French and runs regularly between Lower Saxony and Bremen. Fuel cell-powered busses are also currently being tested in various cities on the Continent as part of a European subsidy programme.

Industry

For some industries, hydrogen could be used to pave the way to the future. In view of the European climate targets, many companies are under pressure to change production methods in order to minimise their emissions over the long term. In Sweden, for example, the government is backing a plant that uses hydrogen instead of coke to produce pig iron. If the process succeeds, the country could reduce its CO2 emissions by up to ten percent in the long run.

Other companies use the technology for their own electricity and heat supply: The Mannheim-based special materials manufacturer Friatec has been operating its own fuel cell power plant (in German) with an electrical output of 1.4 megawatts since 2016.

In Austria, the technology groups Voestalpine and Siemens are testing the world’s largest plant for the production of green hydrogen together with the leading electricity company Verbund and the grid operator Austrian Power Grid: 1,200 cubic meters of the fuel can be produced there per hour.

Heat supply

In view of the European climate targets, changes are also urgently needed in the heating sector: According to the European statistics authority Eurostat, about 64 percent of the energy consumed in homes is used for heating rooms, and just under 15 percent is used for hot water. Fuel cells could provide some much needed relief as they generate both heat and electricity. In comparison to a conventional gas heating system and regular electricity consumption, users can reduce CO2 emissions by up to two-thirds (in German)and shave off 40 percent of their energy bill.

East Asia is once again leading the fray when it comes to innovative heating technology: Residential fuel cell heating systems were already being subsidised in Japan in 2009, and now, 300,000 systems are in operation with a target of 5.3 million by 2030. In Germany, several major new construction projects are currently focusing on such heating systems, for example in Bedburg in North Rhine-Westphalia and in Langweid in Bavaria.

Structural issues, such as the comparatively high cost of fuel cells and the hydrogen price (five euros per kilo), are still standing in the way of a larger scale application. But the technology is well its way. One challenge, however, remains: The environmentally friendly production of large quantities of hydrogen. After all, demand is set to only keep on growing.

Info box: Energetic use of hydrogen
In order to make hydrogen accessible for energy production, it must first be extracted from chemical compounds as it does not generally occur in its pure form. Energy must therefore be used to produce hydrogen. Nowadays, this is done either by reforming or electrolysis.

During reforming, hydrocarbons are separated from hydrogen in a two-stage process. Natural gas, biomass as well as long-chain hydrocarbons from crude oil can be used as raw materials. 

This method is currently the most economical and, thus, widely used. In electrolysis, alkaline electrolysis, which has also been tried and tested in large plants for many years now, has been the preferred approach. To obtain hydrogen from water, two electrodes are placed under direct current in a vessel filled with conductive electrolytes such as acids, bases and salts. Two partial reactions take place at the two electrodes (anode and cathode) which split the water into oxygen and hydrogen. Other processes include membrane electrolysis and high-temperature electrolysis.

Photo credits: Kelly Marken, shutterstock.com

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