Jules Verne wrote in his book “The Mysterious Island” as early as 1874: “Water is the coal of the future. The energy of tomorrow is water, which has been broken down by electric current. The elements of water broken down in this way, hydrogen and oxygen, will secure the Earth’s energy supply for the foreseeable future”.

Old technology is catching up

The production of hydrogen (H2) by electrolysis was already discovered in 1800. The fuel cell, which converts H2 into electricity, was invented by Sir William Grove together with Christian Friedrich Schönbein as early as 1838. Due to the invention of the electric generator in 1867, also called dynamo machine, which was much less complex than the hydrogen-based technology, H2 technology was forgotten.

In 1990 the technology got a boost again in the automotive industry when the Californian Air Resources Board (CARB for short), whose main task to this day is air pollution control, introduced a “Zero-Emission-Program“. The program required car manufacturers to build at least two percent of all new cars to be emission-free by 1998; by 2003 the quote was to rise to ten percent.

The current climate targets also light the massive expansion of H2 technology, which leaves only water behind when burnt and is therefore basically climate-neutral. Research is running at full speed. New H2 storage processes in carrier fluids such as LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) are being researched, but other production methods are also emerging, such as the plasma analysis process developed by Grafoce or the methane pyrolysis, which was developed by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

It all depends on the color

Almost everyone thinks of H2 in terms of the oxyhydrogen gas reaction in chemistry lessons at school, in which hydrogen and oxygen are produced by electrolysis, and with a bang become water again. A clean process, one might assume. Today, however, most H2 is produced by natural gas reforming, a thermal, non-climate neutral process used in large-scale chemistry. Even the production of hydrogen by electrolysis is only clean if the electricity is produced from renewable energies. 

Colours provide information about the way hydrogen is produced:

Own presentation from magility based on the Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe and, due to its excellent storage capacity, is predestined for use as an energy store. It is always produced by thermal energy or electricity and is used in

The fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into water. This chemical process is called “cold combustion” because it releases energy.

  • Combustion processes

As an alternative to natural gas or petrol, H2 can also be burnt “hot” in the conventional way. However, it must be taken into account that hydrogen has a higher flame velocity than e.g. natural gas, which requires a modified combustion technology to keep the flame stable and recoil-free. In addition, hydrogen burns hotter than natural gas or petrol. The hotter combustion causes the nitrogen (N) in the ambient air to react with the oxygen (O) and to become nitrogen oxide (NOx). 

Nitrogen oxides are responsible for the formation of ozone in summer and also contribute to fine dust pollution.

The all-rounder

The possible uses of H2 as a potentially climate-neutral energy storage medium are growing steadily, making the gas interesting for many applications.

The automotive industry offers fuel cell cars and is developing solutions to use H2 directly in the combustion engine. The Toyota Mirai and Hyundai NEXO, for example, rely entirely on hydrogen fuel cell technology, while the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL is a hybrid vehicle with combined hydrogen and battery technology. The company “KEYOU” is taking a different approach. It offers hydrogen combustion engines for commercial vehicles. Fast refueling times, the weight advantages over battery technology and long ranges speak in favour of hydrogen here. H2 is also used for alternative drives and e-fuels. The term Power-to-X (PtX) plays an important role here.

  • In space travel, hydrogen has been used as an energy carrier since the US moon missions. Apollo spacecrafts had the first modern fuel cells on board to ensure the power supply. 
  • Fuel cells are also used in intralogistics, e.g. in forklift trucks.
  • The companies Linde and Still offer forklift trucks with fuel cells that allow fast refuelling and operate without emissions. This makes them predestined for the food and pharmaceutical industries and for use in multi-shift operation.
  • In the energy industry, hydrogen is used as an intermediate storage medium for renewable energy from wind power and is either fed into the gas grid or converted into electricity when required. The project Die Öhringer Wasserstoff-Insel aims to convert surplus electricity from renewable energy into hydrogen and feed it into the gas grid.
  • Hydrogen technology is also used in real estate. Viessmann offers fuel cell heating appliances that reform hydrogen from natural gas. The resulting hydrogen is used to produce electricity with the aid of a fuel cell. 
  • The heat released during this reaction can be used to heat rooms or domestic hot water. Another concept from Homepower Solutions uses hydrogen as a seasonal storage for solar energy produced in-house. It combines an electrolyser to produce hydrogen from solar power, a fuel cell to supply electricity in winter, battery capacity for short-term storage and a hot water tank.
  • Alstom’s first hydrogen-powered train has received approval for passenger transport. As a replacement for diesel locomotives, it will be used on a local transport line in Lower Saxony without electrification.
  • The military shipping industry uses fuel cells and electric motors as silent propulsion for submarines. Civil shipping, on the other hand, is starting with initial pilot projects on hydrogen. Under the leadership of Meyer Werft shipyard and its project partners, a new generation of PEM (fuel cell systems) for use on ocean-going passenger ships is being investigated as part of the Pa-X-ell2 demonstration project. The project involves the test operation of experimental facilities using fuel cell technology, which are being developed as part of a decentralised energy network and hybrid energy system. This series of tests will be an important factor in the development of fuel cell technology, energy concepts for the future and the adjustment of the regulations to be drawn up. Due to the climate discussions, cruise shipping companies have come into focus and reacted: After Aida Cruises has sent the first cruise ship powered by liquefied natural gas to sea in 2018, the self-imposed climate programme is to be supplemented by hydrogen as an energy source from 2021. 
  • Just in time for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which have been postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to corona-related reasons, the aim is to demonstrate not only sporting records but also the practical suitability of hydrogen-based e-mobility. The Japanese car manufacturer Toyota is planning 100 hydrogen-powered buses, and limousines that draw their energy from fuel cells will also be available to athletes, guests and officials. A total of 500 fuel cell vehicles are planned. 

Expensive but storable

Green hydrogen will always be more expensive than electricity because electricity is needed to produce it. However, its energy-storing properties make it attractive nonetheless. In the power grid, the electricity generated must also be consumed at the same time to avoid damage or breakdown due to frequency fluctuations. This is ensured by cross-border networking and regulation. Renewable energies are generated depending on wind and sun – this means that they are not always available and cannot be regulated uniformly. This is precisely where hydrogen comes into play as a storage medium, as it can be used to store excess wind and solar energy. Wind turbines that stand still despite the wind will soon be a thing of the past.

However, if one considers the pure efficiency of the long H2 production and use chain, which produces H2 from electricity, compresses the hydrogen, transports it and converts it back into electricity with the help of a fuel cell, one can speak of an energy destruction cascade. This is due to the fact that only 20% of the original energy is retained. At the same time, however, there is a chance to use at least 20% of the electricity that might have been unused before.

Hydrogen as a promotional mecca

The German Federal Government is currently struggling with the question of which hydrogen color is considered to be climate-neutral and is revising the National Hydrogen Strategy, which aims to dovetail climate, energy, industrial and innovation policy. The aim is to make Germany an international pioneer in the field of hydrogen and to achieve and secure long-term world market leadership in hydrogen technologies.

However, regardless of whether green, blue or turquoise hydrogen is involved, the funding landscape for projects in this field is highly developed. More than 300 million euros are available for this up to 2023 just from the Climate Fund. Funding quotas of 40-50 % are granted. Funding is available for fuel cell vehicles in local public transport, trains and ships with fuel cell drive, publicly accessible hydrogen filling stations in road transport, fuel cell systems for self-sufficient energy supply of critical or off-grid infrastructures and fleets of industrial trucks with fuel cell drive.

Hydrogen will change many industries and will often contribute to the emergence of new business models. Feel free to contact us to find out which business models are suitable for your company in connection with hydrogen. We will be happy to find out together with you whether your company’s investment in hydrogen technology is worthwhile and together we will develop the potential that is available to your company in this area.