Hydrogen as an energy carrier of the future


Key element for the energy transition

Hydrogen has a high energy density, burns almost emission-free, is easy to transport and can be stored for a long time. As a versatile energy carrier, hydrogen will therefore play a key role in the energy transition.

Hydrogen occurs practically only in a chemically bound form on earth, for example in water, methane or biomass. In order to be able to use it as an energy carrier, hydrogen must first be split off from its compounds. It requires energy in the form of electricity or high-temperature heat.

The so-called “gray” hydrogen is mainly obtained from natural gas, which results in considerable CO2 emissions. In the case of “blue” hydrogen, these greenhouse gases are separated off and stored. Alternatively, hydrogen is produced by means of electrolysis, for which electricity from nuclear power is used.

Only the so-called “green” hydrogen is climate neutral. It is obtained from renewable energies (e.g. wind energy, solar energy, hydropower). So far, its production in large quantities was considered too expensive. However, it is likely that this will change in the future especially in the areas of energy and transport. The expansion of renewable energies in particular must be promoted. Large electrolysis systems should also be built in the near future.

Electrolysis and solar thermal processes

With the aim of enabling the production of green hydrogen on a larger industrial scale, IKON is focusing on electrolysis and solar thermal processes for its production.

Electrolysis is the most advanced technology and is already commercially available. With the help of electricity, water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. The focus is currently on three processes: alkaline, proton-exchange membrane and high-temperature electrolysis. IKON is developing all three methods.

To switch to a hydrogen economy, all capacities are needed to be expanded. Both smaller, decentralized electrolysis systems – for example at filling stations – and central, large-scale electrolysers with particularly high levels of efficiency are required.

Solar thermal processes for hydrogen production use solar energy to produce heat for thermochemical water splitting. Although this method is more efficient, it requires a larger area. IKON researches components and processes for the most efficient and industrial use of solar thermal systems.

Great demand for hydrogen requires expansion of renewable energies

In order to be able to meet the rapidly increasing demand for green hydrogen, it will be necessary to significantly expand capacities in the field of renewable energies. In this respect, Turkey is particularly suitable within the European landscape. The production and export of hydrogen could be essential for a European “Green Deal” and a stimulus for the economy after the corona pandemic. Sunny states in North Africa and the Middle East are particularly interesting in this regard as well.

In addition to production, the economical and reliable transport of hydrogen is also an essential factor for the future hydrogen economy. Both the transport routes from the global production sites to the nodes in the customer countries and the local distribution to the end consumer must be designed. Various approaches are being considered: liquid hydrogen, the conversion of hydrogen into ammonia, methane or into liquid organic hydrogen carriers. At the moment it is not clear yet which of these approaches will be the most economical. For the route to the end user, hydrogen will probably continue to be liquefied or compressed as a gas and delivered by truck.

The gradual conversion of the natural gas network into a hydrogen network can also be considered for the transport and distribution of hydrogen. For a higher proportion of hydrogen, its materials, components, operation and user requirements would have to be carefully examined and optimized.

Large storage facilities will play an important part of the overall hydrogen infrastructure. Seasonal peaks in demand, such as the beginning of the heating season or periods of darkness, can be safely covered. In Germany, for example, underground storage facilities in salt caverns are being considered. IKON examines the safety and durability of the materials used in such storage systems. In addition, it researches possible business models for production and storage and analyzes the potential of various locations, especially those in Turkey whose infrastructure is suitable for geological reasons.

Environmentally friendly hydrogen propulsion systems for road, rail, air and sea

Green hydrogen is an environmentally friendly alternative where petrol, diesel, kerosene or heavy oil are used today. At the same time, it offers the usual convenience of long ranges and fast refueling processes. Fuel cells are characterized by their high efficiency and, apart from water vapor, cause no emissions – in contrast to the direct combustion of hydrogen in engines and turbines.

IKON develops both special fuel cells and innovative hydrogen tanks for mobile use and integrates them into the respective overall systems, be it cars, buses, trucks, trains, planes or ships. Compared to pure battery drives, hydrogen-based drive solutions have clear advantages when, for example, heavy loads have to be transported over long distances.

Fuel cell vehicles for individual transport are already available on the market. The IKON experts analyze their market and application potential. The first buses with fuel cells are already on the road for pilot projects, and several manufacturers are developing trucks run with this type of fuel cell. Fuel cell trains are an emission-free alternative to diesel with multiple units on routes without overhead lines. In a study, IKON examined the market for trains with hybrid drive concepts and, together with rail vehicle designer YAVER, developed the world’s first fuel cell multiple unit.

One focus in the IKON Institute for Maritime Drive Systems, lies on the use of hydrogen for the energy supply of ships. The researchers are working on following aspects: service life, suitability for everyday use and the particularly efficient integration of such systems, for example when a ship needs electricity for propulsion and, at the same time, cold for cooling the cargo.

Hydrogen can be used in modified gas turbines. This is particularly interesting for large aircraft classes but requires the development of aviation-compatible hydrogen storage systems and new combustion chamber systems. Flying with fuel cells and electric drives has so far represented a very complex, technical challenge, but promises to be particularly quiet, efficient and emission-free.

In addition, liquid synthetic fuels based on hydrogen can make flying much more sustainable. In the future, these could not only be of interest in aviation, but also wherever conventional drives cannot easily be replaced by climate-friendly alternatives such as batteries or fuel cells. In the IKON-wide cross-sectional project “Power to Gas Fuels”, the chemical-physical properties of such climate-neutral fuels as well as their performance, composition and economic production methods are examined.

Electricity and heat from green hydrogen

The potential of the energy carrier hydrogen could possibly represent the next generation of energy. With fuel cells and gas turbines, controllable electricity and controllable heat can be generated. In retrospect of fluctuating renewable sources, it represents an essential pillar for the energy system of the future, since it compensates for peaks in demand. It is important to achieve the highest possible levels of efficiency.

Only minor adjustments are required to convert gas-fired power plants that are already working very efficiently to hydrogen. IKON therefore conducts research in the field of fuel flexibility and, in cooperation with power plant manufacturers, develops concepts showing how mixtures of natural gas and hydrogen burn as stable as possible with low emissions.

Success factor networking

The step towards a sustainable hydrogen economy can only be achieved if there is a networked approach with the electricity, heating, mobility and industry sectors together. That is why IKON conducts research along the entire system chain. Starting with the production of green hydrogen through electrolysis or solar generation through the use in transport and industry and in the energy sector – hydrogen enables environmentally friendly power supply and emission-free transport and thus the necessary change to climate neutrality.

More power for batteries and fuel cells through quantum computers

IKON is researching new materials for more powerful batteries and fuel cells by using a quantum computer. With the help of a quantum computer, electrochemical processes inside the energy storage device can be simulated. By changing the used materials, performance and energy density of battery fuel cells can be improved.

What is special about the quantum computer material design project (quantum computer material design for electrochemical energy storage and converters with innovative simulation techniques) is the use of a quantum computer for a very application-oriented task in material research. Quantum computer material design combines basic research with applied research in the field of energy storage.

Quantum chemistry as a decisive factor

Electromobility primarily requires small and light energy storage devices with high capacity and performance. The decisive factors are the material and structure of the electrodes. They influence the energy density and the electrical voltage. In addition, improved materials make it possible to avoid decomposition processes and thus make batteries and fuel cells more durable.

When electricity flows through a battery or fuel cell, ions migrate from one electrode to another. At the electrode surfaces, ions release or take up an electron. With the help of quantum physics, these processes can be described in details. The electrons change their quantum mechanical state. We simulate these energy states with a quantum computer in order to calculate how much energy is present in the electrochemical reactions or how quickly they take place.

The quantum chemical interaction is compared in these simulations for various novel materials and electrode structures. In batteries, the aim is to achieve the highest possible chemical binding energies for the electrons; in fuel cells, hydrogen and oxygen should react with one another as efficiently as possible.

Using quantum computers for material design of battery electrodes

Quantum simulations can revolutionize computer-aided material design. In the quantum computer material design project, researchers want to use a quantum computer to investigate how atoms and molecules interact with the different electrode materials in batteries and fuel cells. With quantum simulations, we can ideally map the quantum chemical processes at the electrodes of batteries and fuel cells. The chemical composition of the electrodes and their microscopic structure can be optimized on this basis. The researchers want to achieve higher performance and energy densities through the targeted design of the electrode materials and structures.

Quantum simulation can also be used for other areas

The quantum algorithms developed in the quantum computer material design project are the starting point for future quantum software. Their basic algorithms and solution steps could answer other significant quantum physics questions. The findings from the simulation of energy storage systems can also be used in other research areas, for example in medicine or the chemical industry.

Quantum computers know more than just states 0 and 1

The way a quantum computer works is fundamentally different compared to a conventional computer. The bits of a classic computer only have two states: 0 and 1. The quantum bits – qubits for short – of a quantum computer, on the other hand, follow the laws of quantum physics, which describes processes at the atomic level. Qubits can therefore assume an infinite number of intermediate values. This allows novel algorithms that are not possible on standard computers. Quantum physical objects such as atoms, electrons, ions or light quanta serve as qubits.

Institute of Maritime Energy Systems
The IKON Institute for Maritime Propulsion Systems researches and develops innovative solutions for reducing emissions in shipping. Worldwide, shipping accounts for about 80 % of freight transport. In most cases, cargo ships are operated with heavy fuel oil. The combustion of this fuel accounts for around 3% of global CO2 emissions. Added to this are the emissions from the growing economic sector of cruise ships.

The institute is therefore focusing on the development of alternative propulsion systems that can significantly reduce pollutant emissions in the shipping industry. To this end, issues relating to the storage, pre-treatment and conversion of alternative fuels are being addressed and their efficient supply and use optimized. The new developments are simulated and tested in real operation and made ready for certification.

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