When I look back 20 years, I was sitting in an office of fuel cell enthusiasts in Mainz-Kastel (Germany), where a group of young professionals from various disciplines assembled to build one of three development centers for the core of fuel cell Automotive development in GM. The walls were covered with posters on the near future and the breakthrough was forecasted in 2004 with a “H2-ZAFIRA”on the market!

Well – we all know it turned out differently! Infrastructure, cost-effective technical solutions and the socio-political willingness were not given then. Let’s take a deeper look in what happened and why I think this decade will look much different.

To start with, lets come to some of the obvious tipping point for the nearest future. Let’s start with Oil. “Peak oil”, so the tipping point of technical available maximum quantity will be reached this decade. Current models see this tipping point coming in 2023, with a slight delay due to COVID 19 pandemic. After that it will leave its reached plateau and will go down irrevocable. The switch of mobility and energy-systems from fossil fuel to renewable energy forms will further drive this trend.  In countries like Germany that has introduced a CO2 tax, this trend will be even accelerated.

"Studies show that it will be more efficient and cost effective by 2035 to produce Hydrogen in your own country than to import it."

Power generation from solar energy already today is cheaper than from fossil energy where half of the coal fired power stations is already making losses. With technological progress we will see more power generated by photovoltaic (efficiency today max 22 percent, by 2030 already forecasted to 30-40 percent) further reducing space and costs. So all these scenarios sum up to using less space to get the same amount of power generated. And by the end of this decade the solar power generation in the so called hot countries will give the net income for exporting, driven further down the costs of energy. What does this all mean for Hydrogen?

Studies show that it will be more efficient and cost effective by 2035 to produce Hydrogen in your own country than to import it. Between the continents there will be undersea-cables to send power generated in these hot countries to the more colder areas of the continent or where its needed. Not only China but also the USA, India and other super power countries drive to what could become a world grid of electric power that is forecasted by 2050.

Today’s efficiency in Hydrogen generation is at about 60 percent and will be around 75 percent for water electrolysis, which further reduces costs. Promising trialswere done with steam Electrolysis (HTEL) and with high temperature-SOEC-membranes that operate at 800° C. These can work in a reverse process like Fuel cells for power generation. Unfortunately, due to the high temperatures their future potential seems to be limited, although the efficiency in a lab environment is already at 70  percent. Experts estimate their use in bigger industrial plants for 2030 with efficiencies at 75 percent. Anyway the biggest invest reductions at the same time are forecasted in high temperature operations, from today at 2.540 Euro/kWel to 153Euro/kWel until 2050.

The methanation of Hydrogen will be constant at about 80 percent efficiency. This will be possible due to the well known Sabatier process. Today its about 77,7  percent but forecasts to 2030 do not go higher than 80 percent so we are already today at a good level. The energetic coupling of electrolysis and methanation will be also at 80 percent around 2030. As the Sabatier process emits heat during its exotherm reaction the coupling with heat absorbing HTEL waterelectrolysis will increase the overall efficiency. The EU has started already a project called “Helmeth” that prove to be already at 76 percent with exactly these phenomena. In a high industrial scale this could be 80 percent and so it could become industry standard by 2030. Let´s look at the cost side of this energy source. The production costs for Methane could drop to 50 percent in Germany by 2030 for industrial customers. Today we see prices at about 4.55 cents/kWh. Basis for such reductions in photovoltaic energy is a price reduction of 0.5 percent per month (calculated by several institutes and the Stanford University) and its advanced use of the previously explained coupling process of electrolysis and methanation process.

In the last part of the discussion, I want to come back on the use of Hydrogen in the Automotive and transport sector. If you take todays population of hydrogen cars worldwide it has come to approx30000 cars. Toyota (MIRAI), Daimler (GLC F-cell) and even Hyundai (NEXO) have launched models that you can buy. With prices over 65000 Euros not a cheap solution but commercialized. Especially the range of the Hyundai car with 765 km is extremely interesting although 100 km with 1kg H2 cost about 9.50 Euro, so at levels of combustion driven cars. In Germany we will surpass the number of 100 H2 filling stations spread in the country.

But is the FC (Fuel cell) car beating its rivals from BEV (Battery-electric vehicle)? No, not for the efficiency, nor for its costs and not for its infrastructure. But let´s not forget that also FC driven cars are electric driven, so they could play a major role in CO2 reduction. But is this a quick path? I don´t think so and it will take another decade of technological breakthroughs. On the long run fuel cell driven fleets will work in a hub oriented environment, where on a regular basis vehicles are charged. This will be the case for trucks and busses, where the investment for the infrastructure is easier to be paid off than in the private sector and individual traffic.

Summarizing the Hydrogen hype is for sure to be looked at for the energy sector and long range power grid solutions, but for the use in high volume automotive application there is currently no quick scenario. More likely it will enter in Truck and Bus applications, as they have easier “pain points” for the infrastructure and the technical realization.

I could write another book about carbon capturing and its way into long lasting solutions for the industry, as it’s a necessary and profitable step towards green energy, but I will continue now with an outlook on Hydrogen generation. The take on carbon capturing will be one of my next articles.