Several European countries are betting on clean hydrogen to achieve their carbon neutrality goal. This energy is capable of propelling cars, trucks, trains and even, in the future, planes. And this without any greenhouse gas emissions. But its use requires massive investments and a strong development of renewable energies.
The electric car is gaining ground each year against its thermal engine rival. But a psychological obstacle still slows down the sales of these models: autonomy, often considered too low by consumers. Another type of “clean” technology promises to provide a solution: the green hydrogen engine. Several European countries are committed to the development of this technology. At the beginning of July 2020, the Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans presented a plan for the development of clean hydrogen.
Is hydrogen a clean energy?
This gas is present in abundance in the universe. It enters in particular in the composition of water. Used in a fuel cell, it is already used today to drive cars.
Hydrogen makes it possible to emit no pollution when it is used in cars or trains. It rejects, for only waste, water. On the other hand, this type of energy is less virtuous when it comes to producing it. Today, 90% of the hydrogen used in France is made from hydrocarbons. This energy is therefore a strong emitter of CO2.
European states want to promote green or “decarbonized” hydrogen. It would be produced by electrolysis of water with electricity from renewable sources, such as solar panels or wind turbines. This means producing much more electricity than today.
How can hydrogen be used in transport?
Used in a fuel cell, it is already used today to run cars without any greenhouse gas emissions, or even fine particles. A French taxi company, Hype, already uses a hundred of these models.
However, this type of vehicle is for the moment largely in competition with the electric car, which is much less expensive to manufacture. According to Dominique Vignon, engineer from the École polytechnique, member of the Académie des Technologies, “hydrogen is not competitive on the shortest routes, in particular because there is a loss of efficiency of around 65 % of the energy deployed to manufacture and use it. Whereas we are talking about a 20% loss for electricity.” For him, however,“Hydrogen can find its place on long-distance journeys and for heavy transport, such as to propel a 35-tonne truck. This is not possible with electric batteries.”
The first hydrogen-powered passenger trains could run in Germany as early as 2022. In September, a hydrogen charging station dedicated to rail traffic will be built in Bremervörde in northern Germany. A world first. “A kilogram of hydrogen replaces approximately 4.5 liters of diesel,” says Mathias Kranz, the representative of the Linde company which will build and operate this new equipment, quoted by h2-mobile .
On his side,Coradia iLint . Already ordered forty copies by the German regions of Lower Saxony and Hesse, this regional train is powered by a fuel cell. It promises to transport 300 passengers at 140 km/h.
In air transport, manufacturers prepare “green kerosene” made from CO2 and hydrogen. The first production unit for this type of aircraft fuel will be commissioned in 2023 at an industrial site in southern Norway. It will have a capacity of 10 million liters per year thanks to an initial investment of 90 million euros. Problem, according to Dominique Vignon: “this hy-kerosene costs about 5 times more to manufacture”.
How to develop green hydrogen?
The production of hydrogen is today at high cost. Dominque Vignon, co-author of a report on hydrogen from the Academy of Technologies , France, says that “it takes 15 to 20 years to set up infrastructures, service stations and distribution channels. You have to be certain that all this will be very expensive. A hydrogen pump costs two million euros. You have to agree to the investment before the vehicles are developed. If there is no distribution network , nobody is going to buy hydrogen vehicles.”
To make these investments pay off, the report recommends putting a cost on carbon emissions. ” The missing link is to give a price to the”believes Dominique Vignon. In other words, the CO2 emissions avoided thanks to green energies must be accounted for financially.
For the scientist, “this price must be determined either by the market or by the authorities. This will then push to establish priorities on the uses of CO2 and to lower the cost of production of hydrogen” .
Within the EU, Germany announced in early June a massive investment of 9 billion euros, with the ambition of becoming the “number 1 supplier and producer” of hydrogen in the world. France wants to make hydrogen one of the drivers of its green recovery and will devote 1.5 billion euros over three years to “achieve a carbon-neutral aircraft by 2035”
In addition, eleven European gas infrastructure companies want to create a hydrogen gas pipeline network of nearly 23,000 km by 2040.