Development of Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Technologies in Europe Toward Commercialization from 2020 Onward
Written by Prachi Patel
Bart Biebuyck gave an excellent overview of the progress on fuel cell and hydrogen technologies in Europe. The Joint Undertaking is a public-private partnership of the European Commission, and the industry and research arms of the Hydrogen Europe group. With 1.7 billion Euros in funding, the partnership’s mission is to accelerate research and development (R&D) and bring these technologies to market readiness by 2020.
The goals of the Undertaking are to produce hydrogen in a green way by using less critical raw materials; low-cost fuel cells for transportation, heat, and electricity; and, the key driver for Europe, hydrogen storage for integrating renewables on the grid.
Several ongoing projects on electrolysis to produce hydrogen have already generated materials breakthroughs and slashed the cost of electrolysers since 2011, he said. This has boosted capacity. Megawatt scale electrolysers that produce green hydrogen fuel are now operating at various industrial plants around Europe. A large bakery in Völs, Austria, for instance, uses the hydrogen from its 3.4 MW hydro-electricity-powered electrolyser to heat bread ovens. This offsets the carbon emissions from baking bread, each gram of which produces a gram of carbon dioxide, Biebuyck said.
Research is also underway on using solar power to split water, but improvements in efficiency are needed, he said. The EU industry has launched an initiative to have a 40 GW electrolyser by 2040.
Next, he addressed progress in the area of fuel cells for transport. The focus of materials research here is to find catalysts that use little or, ideally, no platinum. Today’s platinum-based catalysts make up a third of fuel cell cost. Another avenue to reduce cost is to eliminate rare-earth materials found in some components.
The Joint Undertaking also supports fuel cell vehicles and infrastructure. Asian car manufacturers dominate the market today, but some European auto companies plan to have hydrogen car prototypes by 2025. As for refueling stations, there are 120 now in Europe, but 50 member states have committed to building more, reaching a target of about 850 by 2025. “We are also focusing on fuel cell buses to clean up cities,” Biebuyck said. Fuel-cell buses are expected to reach cost-parity with diesel and battery buses in the next 2–3 years. Meanwhile, the first fuel-cell garbage trucks are starting to appear on the market.
Biebuyck went on to talk about the potential of fuel cells in railway transport, and promising demonstrations in hydrogen-powered aircraft and ships. For ships, there needs to be regulations, and there is a need for research on liquid-hydrogen storage and megawatt-scale fuel cells for ships.
Finally, in the area of heating and cooling, there is a need for research advances in solid-oxide fuel cells. Breakthrough concepts like 3D-printing are being funded by the Joint Undertaking. And installations of “washing machine-sized” micro combined heat and power systems are going up steadily in Europe.
Biebuyck ended by giving a glimpse into the future. Last year, 28 European countries signed an agreement to work on hydrogen research. In the 100 billion Euro Horizon Europe research program “you will find hydrogen and fuel cells many times in the text, even more than batteries,” he said.
But for solid progress to be made in this area, international cooperation is going to be critical, he stressed. And there is a dearth of talented materials scientists and engineers in the area. “We really need you,” he said to the audience, “because in hydrogen and fuel cells, materials research is very important. Look at hydrogen fuel cells, because I guarantee you it will be a successful future.”