Fuel cell and hydrogen technology promises a greener world for all

By Bart Biebuyck, Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU)
Winter 2018

Why Europe must continue to support development and deployment of this key low-carbon technology.

The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal: there is a limited time window during which we must act to radically reduce carbon emissions and limit the worst effects of global warming. A major part of the solution is shifting to clean energy and transport systems, and hydrogen is set to play a pivotal role in this transition.

During the past ten years, the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), a public-private partnership between the European Commission, European industry, and research organisations has worked to develop and deploy fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. Our projects demonstrate that fuel cell and hydrogen (FCH) technologies represent one of the pillars of future European energy and transport systems, making a valuable contribution to the transformation to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

In transport, a challenging sector to decarbonise, FCH JU projects continue to demonstrate the hydrogen fuel cell technology’s reliability and financial viability, bringing down costs and building investor confidence. Compared to internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cells enable the production of electricity with improved efficiency. They emit only water, and produce no CO2 emissions, nor any other atmospheric pollutants.

As more renewable energy comes onto the grid, we need more energy storage. Here, hydrogen’s role has become increasingly important for the FCH JU, with significant research progress since 2011. An excess of hydrogen produced by electrolysis – the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen – led to the realisation of hydrogen’s potential as backup power: enabling higher penetration of renewable energy.

Now Europe is a world leader in the key technology, the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), and green hydrogen production sites are setting up all over Europe, from Scotland's remote Orkney Islands to the industrial heartlands of Austria.


Decarbonising industry
The expertise we have developed in Europe is opening up new global markets. One example is the DEMCOPEM-2MW project which is demonstrating PEM fuel cells in China, at the Ynnovate Sanzheng Fine Chemicals chlor-alkali plant. Hydrogen produced onsite can be directly fed into the 2 MWe cogeneration unit, generating electricity, heat and water - and lowering overall electricity consumption by 20%. And with the PEM technology coming from Europe, the project is a clear win-win in international collaboration.

Where hydrogen is a byproduct - in petroleum refining, as well as chemicals production - it can be used to produce clean, local, load-following power, and replace or reduce fossil fuel use. However, the lack of multiple megawatt-scale European reference sites is a significant barrier to widespread adoption. To tackle this, the FCH JU-supported CLEARgen Demo project is constructing a large-scale fuel cell system, in Martinique, an overseas territory of France. The fuel cell system will be purpose-built for the European market, and will validate technical and economic readiness at the megawatt scale, showing that large stationary PEM fuel cell systems are environmentally friendly and commercially relevant, especially for chemical process industrial applications where, today, excess hydrogen is vented.


Looking to the future
These, and many other FCH JU-supported projects, have helped the European industry to make great strides. We now have the potential to move to commercialisation, with the associated benefits of economic growth, high value-added jobs, and creating a supply chain of EU companies around a new suite of products based on hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

But to capitalize on our knowledge, we must continue to support field trial demonstrations. High- volume rollout trials bridge the gap to commercialization and support the market entry of new products. This is when simplified, product-specific market activation schemes become necessary. These schemes enable further cost reductions and ensure cost-competitiveness with conventional, fossil fuel-based solutions.

Furthermore, building manufacturing capacity with a high degree of reliability and quality control and assurance will have a strong multiplier effect. Investing in the manufacturing capacities of companies ready to take the next step in commercialisation will help to produce high-quality, reliable products and ensure that European companies are competitive worldwide, avoiding the failures made in other innovative technologies.

For these efforts to succeed, we must decisively support the European supply chain. A healthy well-developed European-based supply chain that can provide top-quality components to OEMs in a competitive environment will allow Europe to attain a level of leadership, attract top talent and create highly skilled jobs.

A number of FCH products are entering the marketplace now after having achieved a high level of technical maturity; without decisive focused support, there is a risk they may suffer from the well-known 'valley of death' that afflicts many companies when launching new and innovative products. This is particularly true in markets where regulations do not yet recognise the added value of these low or zero emission, highly efficient products. To avoid this situation and strengthen European industry, providing the right kind of assistance to the commercialisation of these early products is crucial, and plays a key role in boosting public confidence in these technologies.

It is amazing to see the enormous progress that fuel cell and hydrogen technology has made over the past decade. The hydrogen economy is just at the beginning of a long journey: one that we must continue to support, so that we can all enjoy a greener, cleaner and more prosperous low-carbon world.