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Let's talk about hydrogen fuel / with Aleš Doucek

Michael Londesborough: My guest today is Aleš Doucek. He is the head of hydrogen technologies at the nuclear research institute in Řež near Prague.

Aleš, today we often hear about the electrification of both cars and truck. What role does hydrogen play in that process?

Aleš Doucek: 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.

ML: 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.

AD: 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.

ML: So converting the chemical energy in hydrogen gas into electrical energy by means of a fuel cell can enable quite long distances on one tank of hydrogen. What sort of distances are we talking about for the average car?

AD:  We can imagine it’s more than 500 kilometers. That’s almost the same as current petrol or diesel cars.

ML: So in terms of distances traveled, it’s comparable with current combustion engines which work on hydrocarbons. How long will it take to refuel with hydrogen?

AD: Three to five minutes, depending on the station.

ML: Again very similar to hydrocarbon time. Do you envision a future where we will combine the fuel cell technology with batteries or will they remain two separate electrification technologies?

AD: There are different segments that we must consider. In small cars, which are usually used for local transport within the city, battery electric vehicles are perfectly sufficient. We can charge them overnight at our house, rendering their operation quite cheap and efficient. When traveling longer distances, however, such as going on holiday, a battery-operated electric vehicle just 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 that we will see a mix of both technologies on our roads within the next ten to fifteen years.

ML: So within ten to fifteen years, the average family could perhaps own two cars? One smaller, battery-powered for local transport and a hydrogen-powered fuel cell car for longer distances. What about cost? Will it be expensive?

AD: Of course it’s hard to say what the future holds, but hydrogen cars today are only slightly more expensive than battery electric cars. In terms of price per kilometer, it’s approximately 2.50 crowns. That’s again only slightly more expensive than fossil fuel cars.

ML: 2.50 Czech crowns per kilometer. That means that we can travel roughly 100 kilometers for an expense of about 10 Euros.

AD: Exactly

ML: That’s a very competitive price. Where does the extra cost come from? Is it the hardware? Will I have to pay a premium for the hydrogen fuel cells? Is that the expensive part?

AD: Yes. The technology isn’t as mature as combustion engine technology yet. So at the beginning, we need to invest more money. The biggest problem today, the reason that market isn’t fully developed yet is quite simple- we don’t have enough refueling stations. The infrastructure is not sufficient yet, which is problematic for customers.

ML: It seems to be a similar case as with battery vehicles- there’s an infrastructural problem. We’ve had over a hundred years of modern car development and we’re used to supplying hydrocarbon fuels. So we have a functioning system in place and the infrastructure works. I assume that there must naturally be some sort of inertia for change. What do we have to do to make that change happen? Do you think that refueling stations will quickly begin to realize that they need to diversify their supply to offer not only hydrocarbons but also hydrogen and perhaps battery packs as well?

AD: 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. And 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 that we have today- combustion engines and battery electric vehicles. So car manufacturers and fuel producers are ready to take part in the future market.

ML: So you believe that both sectors of the automobile industry see this as an opportunity and are preparing themselves for it. Let’s go back to the concept of hydrogen as a fuel for a moment. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it doesn’t occur on our planet in the form of H2 molecules, which we could use for this technology. Hydrogen occurs as a compound, most often with oxygen in the form of water, but also with carbon in the form of hydrocarbons. 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?

AD: We basically have two ways to produce hydrogen. 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. This is also 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. Furthermore, we can use hydrogen production as energy storage for the electricity grid. That is, and will continue to be, a very important and very well-paid service.

ML: Let’s split those two sources for a moment. There is the highly sustainable, environmentally-friendly source- the electrolysis of water. We’ll come back to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at using fossil fuels for production. Is that the major source of our hydrogen today?

AD: 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 using fossil fuels.

ML: Nevertheless, hydrogen production from fossil fuels means that there is an opportunity cost for that hydrogen. Do we currently produce enough hydrogen to satisfy a growing fuel-cell technology market or will we have a problem with the amount we‘re able to produce?

AD: At the moment, there is enough hydrogen. But building the necessary infrastructure is not easy. It’s important to develop both sides of the market- both supply and demand.

ML: So oil refineries can produce enough hydrogen today to satisfy the growing market for hydrogen fuel cell technology use in transportation. We can store that hydrogen safely and transport it safely in a growing infrastructure, where an end user can go to actually buy “hydrogen gas”.

AD: Yes, I don’t see any problems there. Also, I expect that within five to seven years, there will be investment into hydrogen production infrastructure and logistics, but it won’t be dramatic.

ML: 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?

AD: We have a few options for hydrogen distribution already. The first one is pressurized gas and the second is liquefied hydrogen. Both are possible and both offer advantages and disadvantages. 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.

ML: Presumably, that has to be a huge opportunity for the production of hydrogen through the electrolysis of water, where we could produce it on-site rather easily. All we would need would be a source of water. Tell me more about the current state of affairs regarding electrolysis of water. How effective and efficient is it? Can we apply this technology on a large scale?

AD: It’s important to say that hydrogen mobility is only one part of the whole picture, because we can use hydrogen as a medium to store surplus electricity. So when we talk about hydrogen mobility, we are able to use surplus electricity from another sector. That could help with expenses.

ML: So we have the electricity grid, and let’s assume it’s very diverse. We could still burn coal, use nuclear power, use renewable sources- wind, solar, etc. Then when there is a surplus of electricity generation and demand drops for whatever reason, the price of electricity drops as well. You are suggesting that at that moment, we can use surplus electricity on the grid to store that electrical energy in the chemical form of hydrogen gas.

AD: Exactly. In the near future, there will be many times when electricity will be basically free.

ML: Ok, but even if it’s free, it will still have to go through the process of electrolysis of water. How efficient is that process using current technology? And is there research into different possibilities of electrolyzing water efficiently?

AD: The efficiency of electrolysis is near 75% and we need approximately 55 kilowatt hours to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. Those are very good numbers.

ML: 75% efficiency to using electricity for storing that energy into hydrogen. What’s the cost then of using that hydrogen? How efficient is the hydrogen fuel cell at converting the chemical energy in hydrogen back to electricity?

AD: The efficiency of fuel cell is approximately 50%. So the efficiency of the whole roundtrip, from electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity, is around 35%.

ML: However, that will be competing with current technologies for storing electrical energy in other forms. And the classic case, certainly in Czech Republic, is the use of hydro-pumps. We’re using surplus electricity to pump water up a gradient from a valley to a mountaintop. There it can stay and we use gravitational potential when we rerelease the water to regenerate electricity. If I’m not mistaken, that’s about 50-60% efficient?

AD: Could be.

ML: That’s still a lot. So hydrogen is still not competitive yet then,

AD: We have to see the whole situation. It would be very complicated to build another hydro-pump storage facility in Europe. It’s very expensive environmentally and from the local point of view, it’s very unpopular. There are not many locations where we can build them.

ML: This all sounds rather promising. What are the major challenges that are preventing hydrogen’s takeover or grab of the market share in the automotive industry?

AD: The most important aspect is that the whole 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.

ML: In terms of the Czech market, do you believe there will be legislation to support this technology?

AD: Fortunately, there are already subsidies available for hydrogen refueling stations and in the future, we can expect subsidies for clean mobility, especially public. I expect that some of these subsidies will be used for hydrogen buses. I even have information that we will see hydrogen buses in a few regions in the Czech Republic quite soon, particularly in the Moravian-Silesian region and probably also in Prague.

ML: And should we be scared of hydrogen buses and hydrogen cars? Is there a danger aspect?

AD: Just like any other fuel, hydrogen contains a lot of energy. So, just like any other fuel, we have to treat it with respect. Currently, all devices which utilize hydrogen also have a hydrogen sensor. That means if there is a leak, the hydrogen sensor can detect it, automatically close the pressure vessel and start to vent 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.

ML: 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?

AD: 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 ten to fifteen years, the hydrogen car will be pretty standard on Czech roads, in Czech families. We have a bright future with hydrogen fuel cells.

ML: On that note of a bright future for us all, Aleš, thank you for coming to “Let’s talk about it”!

AD: Thank you very much.

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