Research collaboration with renowned German centre aims to improve efficiency of green hydrogen

Posted on October 19, 2021


An international collaboration between Queen’s Engineering and Forschungszentrum Jülich, the renowned research lab in Germany, will look at one of the most promising avenues for creating an economy fuelled by renewable energy: green hydrogen.

Both Canada and Germany have committed to achieving a net-zero carbon emission by 2050. Green hydrogen, as a clean source of fuel, can help meet this goal. Green hydrogen can also cut down on carbon emissions from the energy sector when it’s used to store renewable energy that is not immediately consumed and would otherwise go to waste.

The project received its first round of funding with both German and Canadian funding agencies supplying $50,000 each for the first year. Queen’s Engineering researchers Dominik Barz, Brant Peppley, Cao Thang Dinh, and Jon Pharaoh will collaborate with their German counterparts at Jülich to develop a roadmap for the future.

All of the professors working on this project already hold some connection to the research facility in Jülich. It was by no means an out-of-the-blue idea to collaborate. The relationship had been building for a while and the green hydrogen project represented the right opportunity to formalize those connections. The goal is for the project to be the beginning of a more continuous and deeper connection between the two organizations.

“There’s a larger agreement between Queen’s and Jülich to collaborate,” said Peppley, a Professor of Chemical Engineering with decades of experience working with hydrogen and hydrogen-powered fuel cells. “We hope that it will be formalized in the near future. COVID kind of put that on hold. There is a broader institutional collaboration that is being established.”

The Jülich research centre, a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, the largest scientific organization in Germany, operates at a massive scale.

“It’s not a university we’re working with in Germany, it’s the Forschungszentrum Jülich, which has pretty tremendous resources,” said Pharaoh, the only Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the group of four. “The computing centre at Jülich is, at times, the largest computing centre in Europe.”

And, of course, there are more matter-of-fact benefits to an international collaboration. “There are two funding agencies,” added Barz, an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering. 

 

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Green hydrogen is seen as one of the most viable strategies for achieving a renewable energy economy. One reason is its ability to be used as a energy carrier. Pharaoh compared hydrogen to a battery. “You’re putting energy in to get that hydrogen,” he says. “You can put the hydrogen wherever you want it and later you can use that hydrogen to get that energy back.”

Sources of renewable energy, like wind and solar, are irregular and vary over both short and long periods of time, meaning a lot can go to waste if it’s not stored when the energy is in excess.

“If you were to take hydrogen fuel and use it to power transport trucks, you could use it to power 20% of the transport trucks in Ontario with just what we waste in renewable energy, just because we don’t have a need for it at that moment,” said Pharaoh.

Industries are already researching and putting into practice different applications of hydrogen technology. The Tokyo Olympics used hydrogen to power the Olympic flame, as well as a number of the vehicles that ferried the athletes. One of the most promising areas of hydrogen use is in long-haul trucking and in airplanes, where lithium batteries are too large and inefficient. In contrast, smaller hydrogen fuel cells, and even some pre-existing gas turbine engines, can run on hydrogen with only water as a by-product.

Green hydrogen is produced in the process called water electrolysis. Large amounts of electricity can be used to separate water into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen. Naturally, the electricity used in production can come from any number of places. As of now, the problem is that most hydrogen is produced from natural gasses and creates a lot of carbon waste. This “grey” hydrogen currently meets almost all of the hydrogen demand. Sometimes there’s an effort to catch the carbon waste, a process called “blue” hydrogen.

“Blue hydrogen is the magic of saying, ‘No, I’m going to snatch up that carbon dioxide that’s emitted and stuff it in my pocket,’” says Pharaoh.

“And green hydrogen is saying, ‘We’re not going to make it in the first place, dammit.’”

“If you use grey hydrogen you don’t win anything,” says Barz. “You just make the carbon dioxide emission somewhere else. Maybe not in your car, you make it in your factory. For the climate, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

Blue hydrogen is not much better than grey hydrogen because of the methane that is released through leaks during the process. Only the carbon dioxide is captured, leaving the methane to be released into the climate.

The major barrier to production of hydrogen, and especially green hydrogen, are the associated costs. Market penetration is heavily reliant on the overall cost, especially if there are no subsidies. Right now, the biggest expense is simply the cost of the renewable energy, with the costs of the materials used in the electrolysis process and the machine itself as secondary considerations. One of the foremost goals of the joint project between Queen’s and Jülich is to make the production of hydrogen as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

“If we can find cheaper materials, it will affect the cost. If we increase the efficiency, it will affect the cost. If we find a catalyst that works better than the present catalyst and it’s cheaper, it will affect the cost,” says Barz.

“Making hydrogen is good, but if we can make hydrogen together with something more valuable, then it will also bring down the cost of hydrogen,” says Cao Thang Dinh, an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering. “That’s the idea of co-electrolysis.”

The approaches to this end goal of cost-effectiveness will be multi-faceted, but one idea is to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to automate the process of trying to increase efficiency. Backed up by the incredible facilities and computing power available at Jülich, there is plenty of optimism that this tack will yield serious results.

The second major aim of the project is education. Virtual summer and winter schools, open to the public, will be established to create discussions around hydrogen technology and its many applications.

“The applications are there and they need to keep growing,” said Pharaoh. “It’s always been, since the beginning, a bit of a chicken and egg. We don’t have the hydrogen available so we can’t have the products and we can’t make the hydrogen because there’s no products. I think we’re getting past that now.”

The next step in the lifecycle of the project will be to recruit graduate students. The researcher team hopes that the opportunity to collaborate with a respected German lab, and possible opportunities to travel in the future, will attract more students.

 

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