Special Interview #005
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Views Regulatory Frameworks, LCA Analysis of the whole value chain as well as a global hydrogen infrastructure as Critical for Hydrogen Promotion
Germany is an environmentally advanced country, and its Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is Europe’s largest organization for applied research. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (Fraunhofer ISE), Europe’s largest renewable energy research institute, promotes sustainable, cost-effective, and secure energy supply systems. Under its mission to conduct research that benefits society, the Institute is engaged in researching the provision, delivery, storage, and use of clean energy. Closely involved with industry, it also encourages entrepreneurship and promotes international cooperation. We spoke with Professor Dr. Christopher Hebling, Director Division Hydrogen Technologies about the Institute’s RD20 goals for this year.
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft employs over 30,000 people across 76 research institutes and units across Germany, with an overall budget of close to 3 billion euros but generating $2.5 billion in revenue from research contracts with industry and universities. One of these institutes, Fraunhofer ISE, is at the forefront of research for sustainable energy technologies. Through excellent research results, successful projects with industry partners, spin-off companies and global cooperations, ISE makes its contribution to shape the transformation of the global energy system. Together with companies, ISE transforms original ideas into innovations that benefit society The scientific work ranges from basic materials research to system integration.
Three major Research Fields in the Division of Hydrogen Technologies
The division of hydrogen technologies at Fraunhofer ISE mainly conducts research in three areas: hydrogen production from renewable energy sources, fuel cells in the transportation sector, and thermochemical processes. It is also engaged in the Life Cycle Assessment and Techno-Economic Analysis for the whole hydrogen value chain. As for fuel cell vehicles, Japan’s Toyota produces the compact vehicle MIRAI, but in Europe the emphasis is more on the use of fuel cells in trucks at the moment, especially large vehicles with up to 40-ton payload capacities. In the research area of thermochemical processes catalysts and reaction processes are being studied for the production of synthetic fuels and chemicals up to the construction of pilot plants. Device engineering, including the catalyst development, reactor and process design and automated plant control are parts of the research activities. Fraunhofer ISE intends to develop technical solutions with high impact to industrial applications which are being able to be scaled-up to the mass market.
Professor Dr. Hebling, who has been involved in RD20 since its inception in 2019, discussed the Fraunhofer-Society in general and followed up with research projects ranging from solar energy systems to converting hydrogen into longer-chained molecules as fuels and chemicals. He also touched on his own division’s activities. His division has some 150 researchers, consisting of scientists, engineers, and students, and he talked about the entire value chain, from water electrolysis to fuel cells for mobile use and synthetic fuels (conversion to ammonia, methanol and long-chained molecules).
In a 2020 keynote, he gave an overview of the role of hydrogen in Europe and Germany, as part of a sustainable energy system in order to reach climate neutrality, with specific examples. They are promoting 55 climate change programs in Europe, with a particular emphasis on meeting the climate-neutrality goals which must be met by 2050.
RD20 is an Incredible Platform.
When asked his thoughts on RD20, Professor Dr. Hebling responded, “RD20 is an incredible platform, and the Advisory Committee has done an excellent job from the start. However, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from meeting in a personal setting, which was quite unfortunate.”
Collaboration is essential for companies and research organizations that, in the past, developed and competed with their own proprietary technologies. In addition, a major energy transition is on the verge of taking place. In the past, governments, large corporations, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) used fossile resources from underground such as oil, gas and coal in the energy and transportation sectors, but going forward, above-ground energy sources, such as wind-, solar- and hydropower, will be used. As wind and solar power are both free, everyone can participate in energy harvesting. Prior to now, there were “winner” and “loser” countries based on whether or not they possessed underground resources. However, once energy-harvesting becomes free, these conflicts will cease to exist. G20’s common platform brings everyone together to work toward a framework that will support this major energy transformation.
Understanding the culture and behavior patterns of each country is the first step toward international cooperation. Professor Dr. Hebling pointed out the importance of cooperation and personal exchange: “When I visited Japan, I discovered and appreciated very much the world of ‘wabi-sabi.’ Collaboration will become achievable by getting to know other countries with high ambitions for climate neutrality by means of hydrogen, such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Canada, and South Africa. For example, South Africa is a major source of precious metals like platinum and ruthenium that are being used in electrochemical, thermochemical, and catalytic processes. Meanwhile, money flows are notably active in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Iraq, but also in countries like Chile or in Europe. Japan, in my opinion, has been a good role-model in the new energy world, leading the way in hydrogen technology: In 2017, the Japanese government issued the Basic Hydrogen Strategy and became the first to adopt a national hydrogen framework. Through a series of legislations and plans, Japan plans to expand its hydrogen economy and hydrogen production by 3 million tons by 2030 and 20 million tons by 2050.Currently, 40 countries around the world have established national hydrogen energy strategies at a national level as part of their strategy to defossilize their energy economy.”
He added, “At the next RD20, each country will discuss a variety of cooperation initiatives, including government funding, and research initiatives,” expressing his future expectations. “I’d particularly like to advocate for the establishment of a clear regulatory framework for hydrogen energy, as it hasn’t been clearly defined yet. There’s a need for more research to develop efficient and cost-effective catalysts for the synthesis of sustainable fuels and catalysts. Furthermore the global infrastructures for hydrogen and hydrogen derivates has to be installed as a prerequisite for a global hydrogen economy.”
Need for Financial Planning and LCA Analysis
The professor noted that an LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) will be developed for the entire hydrogen value chain, from the energy production to real-world application in the up-taker sectors. Achieving carbon neutrality means that one ton of hydrogen must be produced for not more than one ton of CO₂-emissions in the process. Although this level has not yet been reached, a ratio of hydrogen production to CO₂ emissions has to be determined in order to set allowable and standard values for green hydrogen on a global scale. In the current situation, where CO₂ emissions remain high, there is also the possibility of capturing CO₂ and storing it underground or forming it to a solid-state product. An energy transformation roadmap will be created with allowable and actual values beyond the color-coding like green, blue or red hydrogen.
The step after that will be to seek for investment partners. Around the world, there are investors at both private and national levels, and green technology is also welcomed by investors. We will emphasize to investors, on all levels, that trillions of dollars will be needed to build the entire value chain that will transform fossile carbon into sustainable, green technology. National-level investments, such as contributions and incentives to actual hydrogen industries and infrastructures like pipeline constructions, are required.
In fact, according to the professor, “Japan is an example of a country with successful projects at a national level. Japan constructed the bullet trains Shinkansen, highways, and other infrastructures in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which became a driving force for the subsequent national economic development. This is an excellent role-model for what needs to be done right now in terms of a sustainable energy system: Building a national infrastructure which connects the hydrogen producers with the uptakers in the respective energy sectors which would be impossible to be implemented by the private sector.”
Kenji Tsuda, Editor in Chief, Semiconductor portal