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Why is hydrogen so special?

Hydrogen is an all-rounder: the gas drives electric motors, stores energy and preserves food. But why is hydrogen so special? Where exactly is it used? And what are the future market opportunities? Find out facts in the background text, in product reports and in an interview with climate researcher Manfred Fischedick.

In 2012, Air Liquide inaugurated its first public hydrogen filling station in Germany in Düsseldorf. Since then, Air Liquide has not only built around 30 additional hydrogen filling stations nationwide (the status of the infrastructure expansion is updated here every day!). The molecular gas with the chemical formula H.2 has also gone from being a critically viewed subject to being a beacon of hope for the environment and the economy.

Because H2, which is bound in the water on our earth and is therefore in almost every organic compound, is increasingly turning out to be an extremely talented substance. You don't have to be surprised. The gas, discovered by the English chemist Henry Cavendish in 1766, has long been important in many industrial and technical processes.

Today, for example, hydrogen is used as a coolant in power plants, used in the smelting of ores, used as a propellant and packaging gas for food or processed in the manufacture of fertilizers.

But only the foreseeable end of the combustion engine and the rapidly increasing production of electricity from wind and sun reveal H's real opportunities2.

If Robert Grove could still see this development. The British physicist invented the fuel cell in 1839, in which he produced electricity from hydrogen and oxygen.

The technology, which today can be shrunk to a few millimeters for cameras or cell phones, for example, and built over storeys to power ships, is 180 years old.

The challenge, however, is: like electricity, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, but has to be generated.

This requires raw materials such as crude oil and natural gas, biomass or water as well as electrical, thermal or solar energy, for example, that is supplied from outside.

If hydrogen is obtained conventionally from natural gas, for example, it is referred to as "gray". If it is split off from water using electricity generated from renewable sources, it is considered “green”. Production by electrolysis with excess green electricity is particularly sustainable; In other words, electricity from wind and sun, which cannot be fed into the grid due to the strongly fluctuating production. In the case of electrolysis, water is also electrified, so that the bond between H2 and oxygen dissolves.

The demand must arise

Since oil and natural gas are finite and the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil energy consumption have to be significantly reduced, hydrogen is increasingly becoming the focus. Above all, there is still a lack of infrastructure to drive millions of cars, trucks and ships with fuel cells in a climate-friendly way or to warm apartments and offices in a CO2-neutral way.

Or the other way around: Because hardly any motor vehicles on the roads are powered by hydrogen, the establishment of a filling station network has not yet paid off. But that should change in the foreseeable future, as the "Hydrogen Council" has determined. A study by the international hydrogen alliance, to which Air Liquide also belongs, assumes that up to 15 million cars and 500,000 trucks worldwide will be using gas by 2030.

Logically, the alliance partners want to invest more than 1.4 billion euros in the development of hydrogen technology over the next few years.

Because hydrogen is not only a clean alternative to oil and natural gas, it can also serve as a perfect energy store. Called: Hydrogen can be stored without any problems. This is also necessary, because the product cannot be produced wherever it is needed. To do this, the gas is fed directly into the natural gas network in its pure form.

Even if there are still many questions about this so-called "Power-to-X process“Are open in terms of feasibility on a large scale, one thing is certain: If the energy transition is to succeed, we need technologies that make the fluctuating amounts of electricity from wind and solar power continuously usable. And that is exactly what hydrogen can do as a storage medium. The gas is therefore capable of the three previously separate Sectors of the energy industry to pair. That the markets for Electricity, heat and mobility let yourself be cleverly intertwined with hydrogen, is calling more and more scientists, politicians, manufacturers and investors to the scene. They recognize the immense potential of hydrogen and therefore research innovative portable, mobile, stationary and industrial applications.

We present six from the multitude of exciting innovations in the hydrogen world. It's about Flying, telephoning, driving, heating! The concepts and products show that small and large hydrogen applications could soon be part of our everyday lives.

Exciting: flying with hydrogen

Photo: DLR

At the end of 2016, HY4 took off from Stuttgart Airport on its official maiden flight. The aircraft is the first four-seater in the world to be powered only by fuel cells. The machine was developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The drive consists of a hydrogen storage tank, low-temperature fuel cell and high-performance battery. Aircraft powered by fuel cells could be used as air taxis with a range of up to 1,500 kilometers.

Entertaining: making calls with hydrogen

Photo: Heise

It's no longer a dream: the cell phone that runs for a week without charging. And then has full power again within minutes. At the end of 2015, the British company Intelligent Energy presented the prototype of an iPhone with a built-in hydrogen fuel cell. Companies around the world such as Intelligent Energy and the Swedish company myFC have long been working on mini fuel cells. Consulting firms and technology forges assume that the fuel cell will replace the battery in the future and that hydrogen will supply electricity to laptops, cell phones and helmet cameras on a large scale.

Entertaining: fill up with hydrogen

Photo: Air Liquide

Politics and business are in agreement: a hydrogen filling station network suitable for everyday use is to be gradually built up in Germany. Around 100 H2- Stations will be open to flank the launch of fuel cell vehicles. As the number of vehicles increases, further stations will follow gradually as required. And Air Liquide is right at the forefront: Together with Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and TOTAL, Air Liquide founded the H2 MOBILITY Germany joint venture in 2015. The task: the fast, efficient and comprehensive construction of a hydrogen infrastructure for fuel cell cars.

“We currently have more than 30 hydrogen filling stations with our technology in operation in Germany. About a dozen other projects are in progress, ”says Markus Schewitza, Managing Director of Air Liquide Advanced Technologies GmbH.

Short 3 minutes

takes a full tank and the filler necks are standardized. These are just two strong arguments in favor of hydrogen as a fuel.

Environmentally friendly: driving electrically with hydrogen

Photo: Toyota

The Toyota Mirai is the first mass-produced hydrogen sedan. 3,000 units roll off the production line in Japan every year. The technology is fascinating: no local emissions, electric drive, quiet driving, no long waiting at charging stations. Refueling only takes minutes, then another 500 kilometers can be driven.

In 2019 Mercedes launched the GLC Fuel Cell. And Hyundai now has the Nexo on the road, the successor to the iX35 Fuel Cell. So something is happening with hydrogen propulsion. The Japanese in particular are pioneers. With calculation. The country has no fossil fuels of its own and hydrogen can be produced locally, stored without any problems and, if necessary, transported over long distances without loss.

Relaxed: with hydrogen on the rails

Photo: Alstom

In March 2017, the French transport company Alstom tested the world's first fuel cell powered passenger train at Salzgitter in Lower Saxony. Today the train with the name “Coradia iLint” is in test operation with passengers on the Buxtehude-Bremervörde-Bremerhaven-Cuxhaven route. Further projects of this kind in other federal states will follow.

Because the fact is: Around half of the German rail network is not electrified and therefore perfectly suited for the use of hydrogen instead of diesel.

Cozy: warm with hydrogen

Photo: Krause Heizungsbau

Micro-CHP (combined heat and power) with fuel cells are heating devices that generate electricity as well as heat for the house and hot water. You can efficiently supply single-family houses as well as high-rise buildings with energy. The systems are based entirely on the electrochemical reaction in which hydrogen and oxygen react with one another in individual cells. The larger manufacturers in this country have micro-CHP on offer.

Interview: "Hydrogen vehicles should receive privileges"

Photo: www.eventfotograf.in / © JRF e.V.

6 questions about hydrogenProf. Dr. Manfred Fischedick, Vice President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. In 2017 he co-wrote theShell study "Hydrogen: Energy of the Future?“Published.

Can hydrogen help to guarantee future energy security?

"There is no such thing as a supreme technology, instead a mix of technologies and strategies is necessary. Hydrogen as a diverse energy carrier in terms of production and use can make an important contribution, not least as a long-term storage device for electricity."

What are the challenges on the way to the hydrogen economy?

"The technologies have to develop further, the costs have to be reduced and, above all, an adequate infrastructure has to be built. Energy systems that are still developing, however, have a 'chicken and egg' problem. In other words, there are insufficient applications that can be used for refinancing contribute, the infrastructure is not growing rapidly either.

What is the manufacturing process with the greatest perspective?

"In terms of technology, electricity-based electrolysis is clearly ahead of the curve. It also enables the climate-friendly supply of hydrogen that is obtained from green electricity."

In your opinion, what are the key technologies for the energetic use of hydrogen?

In addition to electrolysis, the fuel cell is central to the efficient and universal use of hydrogen in mobile and stationary areas. The fuel cell is not limited to motorized individual transport, i.e. to cars. Rather, it also has clear advantages in buses and trucks. With fuel cells, for example, they drive significantly further than battery-based electric vehicles.

What major advances have hydrogen application technologies made in recent years?

Progress has been made in almost all areas. This applies to individual technologies, but also to market introduction and integration into energy systems. The fuel cell is already an established technology in some regions of the world. There are already more than 200,000 fuel cell-based micro-CHP systems in operation in Japan to heat houses and water.

What are currently the biggest hurdles in using hydrogen?

The widespread commercial use is still in its infancy. Therefore, the state must encourage and support. Similar to battery-powered vehicles, hydrogen vehicles should also receive privileges - for example exceptions to temporary entry or drive-through bans. And they should benefit from public procurement programs. At the same time, consumers must be further educated - about how hydrogen works, where it can be used and where it can be refueled.