Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in a Net Zero World – Event Summary
By Zara Qadir, Communications Manager for the H2FC Supergen Hub
Charing the H2FC Supergen Session: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in a Net Zero World at the Supergen Net Zero conference was Professor John Irvine from the University of St Andrews, a co-director of the H2FC Hydrogen and fuel cell Supergen Hub, and project lead for Scotland’s Hydrogen accelerator which is decarbonising the Scottish transport sector. Over 100 attendees tuned in for the session.
John spoke about how cross-cutting hydrogen is in the energy arena in supporting other areas, such as energy storage, bioenergy, and renewable energy, and about how the role of hydrogen and its carriers in delivering net zero has never been more recognised or urgent with the UK publishing its Hydrogen Strategy in August.
John briefly introduced the impact of the current hub, now in its tenth year, and its role in supporting early career researchers, building academic/industry partnerships, and driving innovation. The hub has 34 industrial partners, works with 29 universities (8 global institutes) and supports 100+ PhD students. One major output has been the six white papers on topics that cross-over the energy spectrum, including low-carbon heat, biomass derived hydrogen, clean growth, and energy security.
Before the main session started, John also gave us an overview of current and potential uses of hydrogen, in transport for marina applications, aviation, and trains.
Potential roles of hydrogen and fuel cells in a net zero UK economy
Providing a policy perspective was Professor Paul Dodds from University College London’s Bartlett School of Energy. Paul highlighted the huge number of potential future roles for hydrogen, in decarbonising heat, transport, and industry, and producing synthetic fuels.
He also outlined some of the challenges in some sectors and detailed emerging markets (e.g. trade in green hydrogen and ammonia). However, the level of future demand in each sector and across the economy is highly uncertain.
Paul also introduced the hubs’s 2020 white paper which examined hydrogen’s role in clean growth for the UK Economy. A survey of 196 UK businesses of various sizes (across the full supply chain) revealed some interesting findings:
- The UK has innovation strengths across technologies for example; it is strong on patents.
- However, the industrial base is small with little domestic demand, which means the sector is likely to struggle without support. Over two thirds of companies export their technologies.
- Companies benefit hugely from working with UK universities, and the UK produces world-leading research with high citations.
- One of the main barriers was a shortage of skilled labour in the area.
Developments in hydrogen generation from electrolysers
Giving us a comprehensive overview of the latest developments in hydrogen production from electrolysis was Anthony Kucernak, a Professor of Physical Chemistry, at Imperial College London.
The UK Hydrogen Strategy has set a target of 250–460-TeraWatt Hour(s) of hydrogen by 2050, or 20-35% of energy consumption. Anthony commented that we will need to reduce our energy demand significantly first and also ensure that hydrogen is produced using technologies that produce low or zero emissions.
Electrolysers, which have been around for 100 years, allow efficient coupling of renewable electricity to chemical products, green hydrogen being the most important but by no means the only one. Electrolysis systems have a benefit in that they are modular and scalable. The typical module size at which efficiency is optimum is at the few megawatt (MW) scale (~1 tonne (Hydrogen) day). Smaller systems are possible with slightly lower efficiency. Larger systems are obtained by replicating the ~MW unit.
Anthony also spoke about there being significant opportunities to increase efficiency and reduce cost in electrolysers through innovative science and engineering and increasing manufacturing capacity. Research is taking place to understand water electrolyser loses, and to improve, and develop new catalysts. Unfortunately, oxygen is also a poor counter reaction. The market value for oxygen is small compared to hydrogen. Therefore, choosing other counter reactions could drastically reduce hydrogen costs.
Hydrogen in power sector coupling and addressing skills shortages
The final speaker was Prof Dr Robert Steinberger-Wilckens, from the Centre for Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Research, at the University of Birmingham. Robert covered two important subjects.
A recent white paper from the hub highlighted the importance of fuel cells contributing to the UK energy system security. Hydrogen can be produced using a broad range of feedstocks and production processes, including renewable electricity. Fuel cells and electrolysis are complementary technologies linking the electricity and gas markets (as well as transport fuels). They also provide balancing power for renewable electricity systems.
Robert also highlighted the opportunity of building a climate-friendly circular carbon economy: “Decarbonisation is not synonymous with replacing natural gas with hydrogen but from refraining from the use of fossil carbon. We have many options of green fuels that would include carbon, but this carbon if sourced from the atmosphere via biomass, could create a circular carbon economy.”.
As with other energy areas, fuel cell and hydrogen technologies will require regulatory support that allows industry to invest, as well as market introduction support, fees for using electricity and gas grids, and taxation etc. Best-practice examples can be found in Japan and the EU.
Robert concluded his talk by introducing two initiatives that are addressing the issue of a skills shortage in the area; a new MSc Course in fuel cells and hydrogen technologies starting in 2021 at the University of Birmingham and Joint European Summer School on Fuel Cell, Electrolyser, and Battery which has been running every September since 2004.
H2FC and working with the other Supergens
The session was one of the events at the Net Zero Supergen Conference, hosted by the five energy Supergen communities/hubs, to explore the role of energy research ahead of COP26.
The main message for me from this event, is that no one energy source will solve the climate crisis, and it is therefore vitally important for cross-hub events to take place so that we can more effectively communicate, collaborate, and share knowledge across the UK Energy landscape.