Let’s talk about: hydrogen fuel

13. 9. 2019 | Source: BusinessInfo.cz

Year by year, the emission limits for combustion engines get increasingly stricter. Combined with a limited amount of raw materials, this fact leads to the search for alternative fuels. In the past couple years we’ve seen an increasing offer of electric vehicles, but many experts claim that these are merely a stop-over on the way to much more effective technology.

"Let´s talk about it" is a project of Unipetrol company. It´s aim is to explain various sustainable solutions, including all their benefits and drawbacks.

Large auto manufacturers see the future in hydrogen. However, many people are scared of hydrogen and view using it as a fuel to be both risky and unrealistic.

Aleš, today we often hear about the electrification of our vehicles. What role does hydrogen play in that process?
A very important one. First, it offers really great driving ranges, much better than that of battery electric vehicles.

A personal car can easily travel up to 500 kilometers and refueling only takes a few minutes, as opposed to battery electric vehicles which require hours for recharging.

Ok, just to be clear from the start. We’re not going to use hydrogen in our cars the same way that NASA uses it in rockets. We’re not going to burn it, but rather use hydrogen fuel cells.
Right. The fuel cell is a really important device because it converts the chemical energy stored in hydrogen directly into electricity. We can then use this electricity to power the car. It’s quite efficient when compared to combustion engines.
Will we combine fuel cell with batteries in the future or will the two systems remain separate?
There are different segments to consider. In small cars typically used for local transport in the city, battery electric vehicles are perfectly sufficient. We can charge them at home, rendering their operation quite cheap and efficient. When traveling longer distances, however, such as going on holiday, a battery-operated electric vehicle isn’t enough. This is a segment for hydrogen. Hydrogen is ideal for use in large cars or buses and even long haul trucks. I think we will see a mix of both technologies on our roads within the next ten to fifteen years.

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Will refueling stations quickly realize the need to diversify their supply to offer not only hydrocarbons but also hydrogen and perhaps battery packs? What will inspire such a change?
I think that refueling station networks are already seeing the possibilities to be a part of the future hydrogen economy. They are looking for their part in this game, so to speak.
Of course regulation, be it from the Paris Agreement or the European Union, comes into play. It’s almost impossible to comply with these regulations only using the possibilities we have today- combustion engines and battery electric vehicles. Car manufacturers and fuel producers are ready to take part in the future market.

Let’s return to the concept of hydrogen as a fuel for a moment. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it doesn’t occur on our planet in the form of H2 molecules, which we could use for this technology. It occurs as a compound, most often with oxygen in the form of water. So hydrogen as a fuel is really a misnomer. Hydrogen works as energy storage, rather than a fuel itself. Where do we get our hydrogen from?
This is key- to use hydrogen as a fuel we first have to make it. We have two ways to do it. The first, which is widespread today, is from fossil fuels such as oil or methane. The second way is to produce it from water, using electricity- electrolysis. This is one of the biggest advantages of hydrogen- we can produce it from water, a clean source, using electricity, which can also be clean and emission-free. We can also produce hydrogen for energy storage in the electrical grid. That is, and will continue to be, a very important and very well-paid service.

Let’s split those two sources. There is the highly sustainable, environmentally-friendly source- the electrolysis of water. We’ll come back to that in a bit. Let’s start by looking at using fossil fuels for production. Is that the main source of our hydrogen today?
Yes, more than 90% of hydrogen today is produced from fossil fuels. It’s important to say, however, that even a fuel cell car powered by fossil hydrogen is cleaner than a combustion engine car. Locally it produces only water, so there is no pollution. Hydrogen fuel cell cars have a lower impact on the greenhouse gas effect, even with hydrogen that is produced from fossil fuels.

In terms of hydrogen storage and transport, is it more expensive than the storage and transport of hydrocarbon liquids, which we currently use as fuel? Is it comparable? Do there need to be changes to enable this technology or do we have the means to roll it out at our disposition already?
We have some options for hydrogen distribution already. The first one is pressurized gas and the second is liquefied hydrogen. Both are possible and both have pros and cons. In the future, when we need a much greater amount of hydrogen, we might need more possibilities. These could be, for example, transportation of hydrogen in pipes or on-site production at refueling stations.

Presumably that would be a huge opportunity for producing hydrogen through water electrolysis, where we could produce it on-site rather easily with just a source of water. Tell me more about the current state of affairs regarding electrolysis. Is it effective and efficient? Can we apply this technology on a large scale?
It’s important to say that hydrogen mobility is only one part of the whole picture, because we can use hydrogen to store surplus electricity. When we talk about hydrogen mobility, we are able to use surplus electricity from another sector. That could help with expenses.

That sounds rather promising. What major challenges are preventing hydrogen’s takeover of the market share in the automotive industry?
Comprehensive hydrogen economy is a very complex topic. We need refueling infrastructure, we need vehicle producers, some of which are on the market already, but don’t have the capacity of conventional vehicles, and we also need changes in legislation.

Should we be scared of hydrogen buses and hydrogen cars? We all remember how the NASA rocket exploded after takeoff. I know that this is a completely different use of hydrogen, but the stigma is still there. This fear may come from a lack of knowledge, but is it justified?
Just as every other fuel, hydrogen contains a lot of energy. So just like any other fuel we have to treat it with respect. Today, all devices which use hydrogen have a hydrogen sensor. In the event of a leak, the hydrogen sensor can detect it, automatically close the pressure vessel and begin venting the vehicle so that it never reaches a concentration high enough to cause explosion. From my point of view, there is not a big difference between petrol and hydrogen in regards to burning or explosion.

Aleš, you are the head of hydrogen technologies at your institute. That puts you in a position to look far into the future of transportation for the whole world and perhaps the sustainability of that transportation. Are you optimistic about our future?
I am definitely optimistic. I can see a big movement in Germany, Japan, also California, to move away from fossil fuels in transportation to alternative fuels, especially hydrogen. I expect that in 10-15 years, the hydrogen car will be pretty standard on Czech roads. We have a bright future with hydrogen fuel cells.

Guest: Aleš Doucek

He graduated from the Faculty of Environmental Technology at the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague . Since 2008, Aleš Doucek has been a research and development worker at the Nuclear Research Institute Řež, a.s., where he currently works as Head of the Hydrogen Technology Department. His research and work deals with the problem of production and use of hydrogen as an energy vector, its purification, distribution and storage.

Host: Michael Londesborough

Michael Londesborough received his Ph.D in chemistry from the University of Leeds. He is chairman of the Czech Academy of Science’s Institute of Inorganic Chemistry in Řež. He collaborates on popularization projects of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Television and the National Technical Museum.

Watch the interview with Aleš Doucek (24 min)


Source: Unipetrol's “Let’s Talk about It” project site.

The aim of this discussion platform is to highlight areas such as the circular economy, alternative fuels, recycling, responsible production and corporate social responsibility.

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