Hydrogen is an Essential Component of the Energy Transition

Forschungszentrum Jülich’s contribution to the Federal Government’s hydrogen strategy

The energy transition is one of the great challenges to society of our time. Germany and the European Union aim to be climate-neutral by 2050. This should be achieved while ensuring that the population has a reliable energy supply and that industry remains competitive. Hydrogen technologies play a key role in this and must therefore be developed and made commercially available on a large scale. The Federal Government will present its hydrogen strategy next week. 

From the details to the big picture

Why hydrogen is so important for the energy transition quickly becomes clear if you look at the tasks that it is supposed to take on. The intention is for hydrogen to largely replace fossil fuels, be used to store renewable energy, enable mobility, and couple the various energy sectors with each other – doing all this as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

Expectations are therefore high. Jülich’s research in this field is just as diverse, with its range covering the entire value chain – from the basics through to application and from manufacture to transport and use. Jülich also investigates the issue of the social and economic impact of such a profound upheaval to the energy system. Among its various approaches, there are projects dealing with artificial photosynthesis, converting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into “green syngas”, and using a liquid carrier for hydrogen. In addition, the entire research campus itself acts as a real-life laboratory for the energy transition as part of a large-scale practical test.

Production: cost-effective and sustainable

Scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich work to make established methods of producing hydrogen, such as electrolysis, more cost-effective and sustainable.

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolysis does not require any hazardous chemicals, has a simpler system configuration, and can generate hydrogen with much higher current densities and efficiencies. This makes it especially well suited to deal with the current peaks in renewable energy. It is hoped that in future, PEM electrolysis will allow hydrogen to be produced in large quantities from green energy. For now, this is still too expensive due to the high investment costs, which is why Jülich’s scientist are developing alternative, cost-effective materials.

Another promising technology for the future production of hydrogen is high-temperature steam electrolysis using solid oxide electrolysis cells (SOECs). They have the potential to be very cost-effective and efficient, especially when exhaust heat with high temperatures can be used. However, the method is not yet as developed as other kinds of electrolysis – for example the output and stability of the process still have to be improved. The focus of research at Jülich is primarily on improving the lifetime of the electrodes for water electrolysis.

By contrast, high-temperature co-electrolysis converts a climate hazard into a raw material. The technology that was researched in the Power-to-X project uses renewable power to convert the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into “green syngas” – a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen and one of the most important primary materials for the production of fuels and the chemical industry. This could thus help to significantly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

One alternative to electrolysis is artificial photosynthesis. Solar panels that generate hydrogen instead of electricity work like an artificial leaf: They convert solar energy into chemical energy by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. However, the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of generating solar hydrogen still needs to be improved for it to be operated commercially. Jülich’s silicon multistack solar cell is based on thin-film technology, which requires considerably less material than the conventional wafer technology, making it more cost-effective to produce.

Storage and transport: a liquid carrier for hydrogen

In order to be available as an energy carrier at short notice, hydrogen must be securely stored and reliably transported. This can be done in underground stores, in the existing natural gas grid, or using new technologies such as LOHC technology, which was developed by scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

The technology involves bonding the hydrogen to a liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC), which the researchers use like a liquid container for hydrogen. Just one litre is enough to bond over 650 litres of hydrogen. The oily substance is very similar to typical fuels in terms of its use and physical properties and can be transported easily and safely with tanker lorries and trains.

Usage: fuel cells with records

Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electrical energy and are of interest for many different uses, for example for supplying drive to lorries, ships, and passenger cars, for combined heat and power units, and for supplying electricity to devices that are off the grid. Scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich are working on improving the efficiency, durability, and performance of fuel cells.

Ceramic high-temperature fuel cells achieve the highest efficiencies and are considered particularly low-maintenance. However, the high operating temperature also poses great challenges for the materials used. Such high-temperature fuel cells would have to operate for 5–10 years in order to make the application economically viable. Jülich’s solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) achieved a much longer operating time in a long-term experiment, roughly equalling the amount of electricity that a single-family household uses in one year.

By contrast, reversible solid oxide cells (rSOC) not only generate electricity, but can also be used for the production of hydrogen by means of electrolysis. This means they can temporarily store electricity as hydrogen and convert it back into electrical energy at a later time. Jülich’s scientists have developed a highly efficient fuel cell system that can achieve above 60 % electrical efficiency during hydrogen operation. Jülich’s rSOC has 5 kilowatts of power, which is approximately enough to cover the power consumption of two households.

Metal-supported solid oxide fuel cells provide certain advantages in comparison to the conventional ceramic-supported fuel cells. They are highly efficient, more cost-effective to produce, and mechanically stable. However, their technical development is not yet complete. Therefore, the focus of Jülich’s research is on targeted further development as well as the production of new electrode materials.

Systems analysis: the energy system of the future

Decisions made with respect to the energy sector, energy policy, and research funding have long-lasting impacts. Therefore, in order to identify the opportunities and risks posed by new technologies at an early stage, Jülich’s systems analysts model future infrastructures – integrating hydrogen technologies when they do so.

Should we have battery-powered electric cars or hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles on our roads in future? Both technologies are still at the initial stage of their market launch. That is why it is important to get an early estimate of the costs of the future infrastructure, so that the sector does not end up in a technological dead end. One study by experts at Jülich shows that these costs depend heavily on how many vehicles have to be supplied with power: the development of a hydrogen infrastructure is more cost-effective if several million vehicles or more have to be supplied. Both technologies are necessary, however, in order to successfully transform the German mobility sector.

The second study by Jülich’s systems analysts shows in detail how the transformation of the German energy system can be made to be efficient and economically advantageous. For example, the production of wind farms and photovoltaic plants must be increased considerably and hydrogen will become a significant energy carrier. The study is based on an innovative family of computer models that maps the entire German energy supply across all consumption sectors via every conceivable path, from the energy source to the energy that is ultimately used, including the costs.

Large amounts of hydrogen are needed for the future energy system and it is foreseeable that large amounts of green hydrogen will therefore be imported in future. Forschungszentrum Jülich works together with African partners on the project “H₂ POWER-AFRICA” with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Together, they research the potential of producing green hydrogen in Western and Southern Africa while taking local resources and energy demand into account.

Outlook: strengthening innovative power

Forschungszentrum Jülich hopes to strengthen its role in innovation processes in future, particularly with regard to the structural change in the region. Some examples of this are the iNEW innovation platform and the Living Lab Energy Campus.

In order to allow new technologies to be quickly put into use and thus contribute to the success of this structural change, an open innovation platform is being established as part of a research project coordinated by Jülich that aims to be an incubator for sustainable electrochemical value creation. This project, iNEW, brings together developers and users of the technologies to allow the users’ experiences to be directly integrated into the development. Along with RWTH Aachen University, which is involved in the project as a scientific partner, other participants working on the project include companies based in the region.

With the Living Lab Energy Campus, or LLEC for short, the Jülich research campus is turned into a real laboratory for the energy transition, in which the latest scientific findings are tested in terms of their effectiveness and everyday usability. The entire research campus serves as a large experimental space, where the interactions between engineering, energy carriers, and consumers are investigated. By optimizing the coupling of energy converters, storage systems, and the heating, cooling, and electricity grids, as well as actively involving consumers, new solutions for the optimal use of renewable energy in an existing energy system are developed.

Originally published by Forschungszentrum Jülich

  • author's avatar

    By: Forschungszentrum Julich

    We conduct research to provide comprehensive solutions to the grand challenges facing society in the fields of energy and environment, information and brain research. Our aim is to lay the foundation for the key technologies of tomorrow.

  • author's avatar

    Visit the author’s website