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R&D on hydrogen technologies

Climate-compatible transition with a green hydrogen tailwind

The hydrogen strategies set out by the EU and the German government recognise green hydrogen, the energy carrier of the future, as a crucial element in becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Completing the transformation to a hydrogen economy requires that hydrogen technologies be researched in the shortest possible time and then developed with a focus on real-world applications. A wide range of technical aspects are involved: from hydrogen production, storage and transport to its use as a substitute for the fossil fuels used today in industry, mobility and energy supply for buildings. Accomplishing this major feat of research and development calls for a variety of alliances between companies across different sectors as well as the involvement of universities and specialist institutes. Both the national and European hydrogen strategies provide for substantial financial support to promote the initiation and implementation of such R&D cooperation projects.

New ways to produce green hydrogen

It is widely acknowledged that transitioning to a climate-compatible economy can only be achieved with green hydrogen. Accordingly, Germany’s National Hydrogen Strategy has a clear focus on green hydrogen. At present, this is almost exclusively produced by electrolysis, using electricity generated from renewables. Green hydrogen can thus be used as a storage and transport medium, e.g. for transferring wind energy generated in northern Germany to southern Germany without building controversial new power lines. To do this, electrolysis capacity must be created in the short term and beyond. The efficiency of today’s electrolysis processes and facilities also needs to be improved through significant R&D investment, with the aim of achieving a substantial reduction in the often severe energy loss experienced during conversion of green electricity into green hydrogen – not least for reasons of commercial viability.

At the same time, R&D into alternative processes for producing green hydrogen is already taking place, with basic research yielding some promising results. A research group in the Hydrogen Technology Centre (HTC) at the Helmholtz Centre in Geesthacht, for example, is working on materials and processes for photoelectrochemical production of hydrogen directly from solar energy. A different strategy is being pursued by a research group at Kiel University, where hydrogen is being produced through photosynthesis using biotechnologically modified cyanobacteria. Both approaches to finding alternative methods for producing green hydrogen are still at the basic research phase. While they appear promising, further research and development is required for industrial scale use. We have a very good understanding of the issues around R&D alliances between companies and publicly funded research institutes with regard to attributing development results and their legal protection, as well as the implications under state aid law.

Liquid or solid: innovative hydrogen storage

Storing hydrogen poses a particular challenge, although it is possible to draw on the experience gained with natural gas, as for network-based transport. The vast majority of tanks in use today are for liquid hydrogen, and they will remain the focus in the near future. Airbus, for example, has presented three concept studies for hydrogen-powered aircraft to be marketed from 2035 onwards, with the aircraft manufacturer proposing the use of liquid hydrogen for hybrid hydrogen propulsion. Storage of liquid hydrogen places high demands on the materials used for the tanks, especially in the mobility sector, with cooling down to −253 °C being required. Storing hydrogen in a gaseous state, meanwhile, involves high pressure, which in turn requires extremely pressure-resistant materials and multi-walled tanks.

Intensive research is currently under way into using metal hydrides as another way of storing hydrogen. The hydrides absorb the gaseous hydrogen, with high pressure being used to charge and discharge such metal hydride systems. The main disadvantage of these systems at present is the relatively high weight of the storage tanks compared to the amount of hydrogen absorbed. To address this, work is currently being done at the Helmholtz Centre in Geesthacht on the use of light metal hydrides and hydride composites for solid-state storage. From a safety point of view, these could offer significant benefits for cars powered by fuel cells. Following proof of concept, the focus here will be on application-related development in conjunction with various companies.

Green hydrogen as the fuel of the future

Fuel cell technology is relatively mature compared to hydrogen production technologies. The first work was done back in the 1960s. Fuel cell technology was initially pursued in aerospace and subsequently also for use in submarines. From the 1980s onwards, increasing efforts were made to develop fuel cell technology in the automotive sector. Germany was still a pioneer in this field at the turn of the millennium, but the technology failed to gain traction – possibly due to the low price of fossil fuels at the time. In view of the transition to a climate-compatible economy, this technology is now attracting renewed attention after almost two decades, including among German car manufacturers.

Switching to electric vehicles powered by fuel cells that emit only water instead of carbon dioxide may sound simple, but setting up the infrastructure required for predominantly hydrogen-based mobility represents quite a challenge. Having said that, several oil companies have already come up with concept studies for the filling stations of the future that feature hydrogen fuel pumps alongside charging points for electric cars. The advantage of hydrogen as the fuel of the future is that it takes around the same time to fill up a car as with diesel or petrol. However, standardised and compatible systems need to be developed and put in place to allow safe refuelling with hydrogen. We are very familiar with the legal issues surrounding this type of standardisation and patent-protected technologies, and would be pleased to advise you.

Hydrogen instead of coke

Outside the transport sector, hydrogen already plays a major role in industry, although grey hydrogen is still being used for the most part at present. This must be replaced by green hydrogen in order to reach the goal of becoming climate neutral. Additionally, in industries traditionally based on fossil fuels, processes will need to be researched and developed that use hydrogen as a substitute. In the steel industry, for example, several companies are currently working on developing innovative processes and plants in which hydrogen takes the place of coke as a reducing agent. In summer 2020, a first pilot plant was put into operation as part of the HYBRIT project (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) in Sweden. Steel producers in Germany are also working with R&D collaboration partners, especially from the energy sector, to develop hydrogen-based steel production in blast furnaces (e.g. tkH2Steel). They are supplementing these efforts by developing a parallel process to recycle unavoidable carbon dioxide to produce carbon-based raw materials. 

Innovation through cooperation

Political will alone and the hydrogen strategy adopted by politicians will not be sufficient to drive development of a hydrogen economy. Pivoting the economy and everyday life away from its fossil fuel base and towards the use of renewable energy and green hydrogen is essential in the fight against climate change. This requires substantial investment in the research and development of hydrogen technologies. The R&D aid available under the relevant hydrogen strategy provides support for basic research into hydrogen technologies and application-oriented development by businesses. We would be happy to assist you in applying for grants for your projects under these R&D funding programmes.

Hydrogen technologies and the associated product applications can often only be developed through cooperation with companies from other industries. Businesses are thus not only exposed to the risk of failure inherent in all R&D projects, they also have to deal with the risk and uncertainty resulting from a regulatory framework that is as yet rudimentary. On the flip side, this gives companies an opportunity to influence the emerging regime with reference to their planned development activities.

With our long experience and understanding of the business sector and of the technologies, we would be pleased to provide advice on the structuring, contract design and implementation of R&D projects relating to hydrogen technologies. We are able to advise you on all relevant legal issues, including intellectual property aspects and the extent to which development results can be protected.

If you have any questions about research and development in relation to hydrogen technologies, the legal framework for alliances, the protection and exploitation of R&D results and the implications for your company, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your usual contact at CMS or Dr Thomas Hirse.