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Sustainable hydrogen economy

"Without hydrogen the climate goals cannot be achieved"

Image: Shutterstock / Alexander Limbach

An interview with Holger Hanselka and Olivier Guillon on the German government's National Hydrogen Strategy and the role of hydrogen in building a climate-friendly energy system.

Holger Hanselka is President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and Vice-President of the Helmholtz Association for the Research Field Energy. Olivier Guillon is Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-1): Materials Synthesis and Manufacturing Processes at Forschungszentrum Jülich and spokesperson for the topic "Chemical Energy Sources" in the research programme "Materials and Technologies for Energy System Transformation".

The Federal Government has just adopted a national strategy to establish a sustainable hydrogen economy in Germany. What is this all about?

Holger Hanselka: This strategy is part of an ambitious goal that Germany has set itself. By 2050, CO2 emissions in Germany are to be reduced by 80 to 95 percent. In order to achieve this, our entire energy industry must be geared to this goal. Hydrogen plays a central role in this. This is why the German Federal Government has formulated 38 measures for this in its action plan. These include the reliable, affordable and sustainable production of hydrogen, the establishment of a quality infrastructure for transport and storage, and the control of such a complex system.

Why hydrogen?

Olivier Guillon: Instead of using fossil energy sources as in the past, we will in future rely primarily on energy from renewable sources such as wind and the sun. However, the input from these sources fluctuates greatly. We can convert temporarily surplus electricity into hydrogen and store and transport it in this form. In addition, hydrogen is used in a variety of ways in industry and serves as a synthetic fuel for fuel cell vehicles, for example. Without this energy carrier, the climate target set for 2050 would not be achievable.

Holger Hanselka (left) is President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Olivier Guillon is Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-1): Materials Synthesis and Manufacturing Processes at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Picture: KIT / Andreas Fabry; FZ Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

"Hydrogen enables a stronger coupling of the sectors electricity and heat, industry and mobility as well as seasonal energy storage."

What contribution can science make here?

Holger Hanselka: In research, we have already gained important experience and achieved success with individual applications in this system chain. Many things already work on a small scale. At KIT, for example, an integrated pilot plant on a container scale produces CO2-neutral fuels from air and electricity within the scope of the Kopernikus project Power-to-X. However, we now have to adapt all these components for use on a very large scale and integrate them into the complex energy system so that they also work in real operation. Helmholtz is very well positioned for this. We operate on the basis of decades of research into the many aspects of hydrogen - from the basics to the application. The Research Field Energy makes key contributions in this respect. Further input comes from the research fields Earth and Environment, Information and Matter. The Helmholtz Association's centres are also developing new process and value-added chains for hydrogen, including chemical energy carriers. In doing so, they cooperate with other players from science and industry.

Olivier Guillon: Hydrogen enables a much stronger coupling of the sectors electricity and heat, industry and mobility, and seasonal energy storage. All this must be developed now. 600 scientists at ten Helmholtz Research Centres are working on this in close collaboration. We also complement our technological research with systems analysis and socio-economic perspectives. In other words, we are investigating how different technologies can be sensibly combined with one another. Only in this way can we optimise our future energy system, including all social, economic and political aspects.

This is the path of hydrogen: wind, sun, biomass and water produce renewable energy. It is used to operate water electrolysis. In this process, water is put under electricity, whereby it is divided into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced in this process is then transported for use. Image: Project Management Jülich on behalf of the BMBF

What do hydrogen-related Helmholtz projects look like in concrete terms?

Olivier Guillon: With the Living Lab Energy Campus, for example, we are turning the Jülich research campus - in conjunction with EnergyLab 2.0 at KIT, DLR and Forschungszentrum Jülich - into a real laboratory for the energy revolution.  This networking enables us to map different scenarios and test the effectiveness and suitability for everyday use of the latest scientific findings. Our entire site will become a large field of experimentation in which the interactions between technology, energy sources, and consumers will be investigated: with optimized coupling of energy converters, storage systems, and heating, cooling, and electricity networks.

Holger Hanselka: Since the Helmholtz Association is already well networked with other players from science and industry, our role in these innovation processes goes even further. The "Helmholtz Cluster for a Sustainable and Infrastructure-Compatible Hydrogen Economy", for example, is intended to strengthen regions undergoing structural change. This can also be achieved by an "Innovation Centre for Sustainable Electrochemical Value Chains" or the new DLR institute "Future Solar Fuels". With regard to structural change in the automotive industry, we propose the establishment of a competence centre for hydrogen mobility.

The National Hydrogen Strategy of the Federal Government

In addition to renewable energies and increasing energy efficiency with hydrogen, the energy turnaround is to be given a further pillar. To this end, the Federal Government adopted a National Hydrogen Strategy on 10 June 2020.

Strategy (Download)

Hydrogen-powered vehicles can be an alternative to electric vehicles with traction batteries and thus make transport more climate-friendly. Image: Shutterstock / Alexander Kirch

In which areas can hydrogen be used profitably? 

Olivier Guillon: It starts with production, which is very energy-intensive. Only the so-called green hydrogen, which is produced from renewable sources like wind or sun, is CO2 neutral. In 2050, Germany will probably consume twelve million tons of hydrogen. This annual requirement would then be 7 times higher than today. About half of this could be produced by electrolysis from solar or wind power in Germany.

Holger Hanselka: Hydrogen also plays an important role in storing and transporting electricity from renewable energies. So far, for example, there has been a public debate on the construction of new power lines. A Helmholtz study has calculated that transporting energy in the form of hydrogen through pipelines would be 10 to 20 times cheaper. The costs for the construction of the infrastructure are already included in this calculation. Existing natural gas pipelines can also be used for hydrogen by pulling smaller pipes into the pipelines.

"In 2050 Germany will probably consume twelve million tons of hydrogen."

Olivier Guillon: In the field of transport, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles with electric propulsion engines can be an alternative to electric vehicles with traction batteries; this is especially true for trucks. Our scientists have done the math: With up to 20 million vehicles, which is almost half of today's fleet, the investment in a charging infrastructure is higher than in a hydrogen infrastructure. Mobility costs are comparable at 4.5 and 4.6 eurocents per kilometer.

Hydrogen: Research activities of the Helmholtz Association

The transformation of energy systems is one of the major societal challenges for which the Helmholtz Association is developing solutions - with a long-term and holistic approach. Around 600 employees in ten Helmholtz Centres conduct research on hydrogen technologies. The spectrum ranges from basic research to application and covers the entire value chain. However, the scientists not only conduct technological research, but also carry out systems analysis and socio-economic studies to optimise the energy system in terms of its technological orientation and including all social, economic and political aspects.

The Competence Map Hydrogen clearly summarizes the hydrogen-related research activities of the Helmholtz Centres.

Handout (PDF)

"With our technical know-how we have a lot to offer potential international partners."

What are the biggest challenges in practical implementation?

Holger Hanselka: In the course of the energy turnaround, the energy sectors electricity, heat, industrial production and transport are growing together - with hydrogen as a central instrument that is used in all areas. Along the way, courageous, forward-looking and long-term decisions must be taken in the energy industry, energy policy and research funding. Once committed, these decisions are difficult to correct.

Olivier Guillon: To identify the potential and limits of new technologies early on, our systems analysts are therefore modeling future infrastructures and integrating hydrogen technologies. One study shows in detail how the restructuring of the German energy system can be made efficient and economical. The systems analysts found that the production of wind turbines and photovoltaic systems will have to quadruple by 2050.

What role does AI play in coordinating the individual areas in operation and controlling the entire system?

Olivier Guillon: In research, artificial intelligence offers completely new possibilities: from the discovery of new materials through so-called "Materials Acceleration Platforms" to novel computer models that dynamically optimize the operation of an electrolysis plant or map the entire energy supply across all consumption sectors.

Holger Hanselka: Artificial intelligence will also be indispensable for the operation of the strongly networked and decentralized energy system of the future. Without this key technology, we would have to plan every eventuality in advance. Complex tasks can be solved more efficiently with AI because AI learns from the behavior of a system. For example, we can use an algorithm to define the goal of keeping a network stable without being able to foresee every event. Another topic is IT security for the entire energy system as it is being researched at KIT in the KASTEL competence center. KI will also be applied here.

Switch to renewable energies with battery and fuel cell. Image: H2 MOBILITY / Research Center Jülich, Robinius et al.

Without imports we will not be able to cover the large demand for CO2-free hydrogen. How can hydrogen be produced sustainably outside Germany and transported safely into the country?

Oliver Guillon: We will probably cover about half of our hydrogen requirements by 2050 with imports. But that depends on political decisions: How strongly are we expanding wind and solar power in Germany, how much hydrogen can we produce in the country? Hydrogen can also be produced with the help of wind power in Northern Europe or with solar plants in the South - from Spain to North Africa. Transport would also be technically feasible, by ship or with pipelines.

Holger Hanselka: Of course it makes a difference whether you transport crude oil or liquid hydrogen, which has to be cooled. We scientists can calculate scenarios to determine which infrastructure is required in each case and how expensive the conversion would be. In a global energy economy, economic and political dependencies must also be taken into account. This applies to oil and natural gas as well as to hydrogen. This is precisely why the National Hydrogen Strategy also focuses on a strong internal market, which includes sustainable domestic hydrogen production that contributes to the energy turnaround. At the same time, however, our technical expertise also has a lot to offer potential international partners.

Where does Germany stand worldwide in the development of hydrogen technologies?

Oliver Guillon: Looking at the patents of electrolysers, Germany and the EU are in a very good position compared to the USA, China and Japan. In recent years, a lot has been set in motion, and the interest of industry and society is constantly growing. The technologies developed so far must now above all become more efficient and durable and be produced on a larger scale. In this way costs can be reduced so that investments in hydrogen are economically viable.

Holger Hanselka: For example, we should focus on the development of hydrogen storage technologies that are as loss-free and low-risk as possible. Since we have excellent engineering sciences in Germany, I am confident. But it is also a fact that we have lost ground in the field of fuel cell technology over the last ten years. Japan, for example, has invested considerably more. We have to do more to avoid becoming dependent. But we can still catch up. Because in many other countries hydrogen-related technologies are not yet marketable either. It is important that we make even greater use of our potential and synergies, in other words, that we bring together even more players from research, politics and society.

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