Can hydrogen gas solve the energy needs of the future?
The most common element in the universe is more in demand now than ever before. This is due to the potential of hydrogen gas to solve the sustainable energy needs of the future. Semcon is active in several projects driving this technology forward. In this article, our experts share some information about where we are now, where we are headed, and what is possible.
Hydrogen is the lightest element and contains more energy relative to weight than fossil fuels. When it is transformed into energy in a fuel cell, the only emission is water vapour, which is clean enough to drink. There is great potential here not only for both industry and the transport sector, but also as a way to store large amounts of energy for long periods of time.
Technology ready to be scaled up
It’s hard to escape the fact that humankind is currently in a race against the clock. Emissions have to come down quickly and are linked to our dependence on fossil fuels. Today, 95% of hydrogen comes from fossil fuels, but green hydrogen is making rapid headway. The technology exists. The big challenge is to get mass production up and running to get the cost down.
Thomas Lydhig is an expert on automation in production development at Semcon and has been working with production systems for fuel cells and electrolysers for more than seven years.
“Europe currently has an electricity deficit in the winter and a surplus in the summer. Solar power is effective in the summer, but generates little electricity in the winter. Wind turbines sometimes stand still even when it’s windy because the electricity grid itself cannot store electricity. But if we can produce green hydrogen from surplus solar and wind power and store it, we can save the energy that would otherwise have been lost,” says Thomas Lydhig.
Hydrogen also has the potential to reduce our reliance on, for example, nuclear power, through the local production of hydrogen. This eliminates the need for large investments in the electricity grid and transmission capacity from the hydropower plants in the north to the south, where the need is greatest.
Zero emissions for cars in the EU by 2035
In March 2023, the EU approved a new law stipulating that all new cars must have zero carbon-dioxide emissions from 2035 onward. This could be part of the solution to the high prices currently standing in the way of large-scale production of green hydrogen and fuel cells.
“A typical car engine today costs around SEK 30,000, while a fuel cell costs 10–20 times as much. The adoption of this technology by the automotive sector will mean mass production of fuel cells and advanced technological development of the products, which leads to a drop in prices,” says Thomas.
The potential for heavier traffic, on both the roads and waterways, is huge. This has prompted companies such as Volvo AB and Mercedes-Benz to invest in the technology. The trucking industry recognises that the hydrogen-powered fuel cells can complement battery technology by handling longer drives with quicker refuelling, while electric trucks take care of the urban routes.
“There is a big difference between vehicles such as trucks, which run at a constant workload of 40–50% of their peak power, and passenger cars, which only use a fraction of their peak power and often for not many hours a day. For trucks, it’s difficult to "fill up" on large amounts of electricity in a short period of time, but hydrogen gas can solve this with much faster refueling than the corresponding charge in a battery. Furthermore, hydrogen tanks weigh less than batteries”, says Thomas.
At the same time, the efficiency of an electric vehicle is significantly higher, around 90%, than the fuel cell’s 50%. When an electrolyser generates electricity, the efficiency rate is 80% at best. But if hydrogen is created from renewable surplus electricity (such as solar and wind), then efficiency is less important.
Industry is also driving development. Hydrogen has played an important role in industry for over a century, but things are now happening on a large scale. The reason for this is the green goals that companies need to meet – a transition that requires major changes.
Industry has set high requirements to reach the climate goals, and by turning their gaze to green hydrogen, they can take big steps towards this.
“Industry has set high requirements to reach the climate goals, and by turning their gaze to green hydrogen, they can take big steps towards this. By introducing their own hydrogen production, they can store the gas and cover their own operational supply needs,” says Tommy Ekman, who works as Technical Design Lead at Semcon and has extensive experience in hydrogen engineering.
Producing green hydrogen requires an electrolyser, which is supplied with green renewable electricity. The electrolyser uses the electricity to split water into hydrogen. Yet this production has added benefits because the electrolyser also produces oxygen and heat. The oxygen can be used in treatment plants, while the heat can be used in, for example, district heating. This makes hydrogen technology exciting for future houses and other buildings, which won’t need to be connected to the electricity grid.
“Imagine having solar cells on the roof of your house and an electrolyser, fuel cell and storage containers for hydrogen. Then, during the sunny months of the year, you can fill your tanks with hydrogen thanks to the surplus electricity. You can then use this gas during the winter months, which means that your house can manage all by itself, so called off-grid,” says Thomas.
Research on a broad front
Hydrogen research is being conducted in many areas, and Semcon is involved in several different projects aimed at developing the technology for hydrogen production. , a project is under way to develop an even more effective electrolyser. The Swedish companies Powercell and Cellimpact are other examples of collaboration aimed at developing fuel cells, which several major companies across the globe are also engaged in.
What we bring to the table has a lot to do with the understanding and knowledge of how to bring an idea from research to a product that can be mass-produced.
“It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to work with researchers, which we get to do through several of our collaborations. They are uncompromising and want the best solution for everything. What we bring to the table has a lot to do with the understanding and knowledge of how to bring an idea from research to a product that can be mass-produced and sold. We also contribute with our highly detailed knowledge about how these technologies work,” says Tommy.
150% more effective electrolysers
Hystar is interesting because the project started as just a research project, in which Semcon was involved from the beginning. Tommy is the technical lead for the project at Semcon, which has also involved developing a 200-layer stack. In a ground-breaking feat, the team managed to create an electrolyser that is 150% more effective than its predecessors.
“Hystar’s electrolyser is unique, and its efficiency is largely due to the team’s unwillingness to take any shortcuts. The fact that they use the same membrane used in fuel cells means that their electrolyser is already on the way to creating a cost reduction for large-scale production,” says Tommy.
From concept to reality
Semcon is currently working with hydrogen in several ways. These include developing and optimising fuel cells and electrolysers, but also product development and automation. Simulation is another important tool in which Semcon contributes its expertise, which leads to cheaper and more efficient product development. Örjan Kjellstenius is an engineer at Semcon and an expert in hydrogen gas.
“Many of these types of projects get stuck in the concept stage, quite simply because they require knowledge that is lacking in academia. At Semcon, we work on a broad scale with this technology and can bring in different experts when our customers need them,” says Örjan.
Next step: effective mass production
Hydrogen is on the advance, and it is needed. This isn’t only the emergence of a new sector, though, but an important part of the solution to our climate challenges. The technology is there and ready to be used – the costs just need to come down first. Tommy, Örjan and Thomas all agree that the solution to this is a combination of subsidies and increased investments in hydrogen from industry, led by the automotive sector.
“We need to get efficient mass production in place to bring down the costs. The products are not final, they will always continue to develop. But they have reached a sufficient level of maturity to begin series production. The stacks themselves consist, in addition to a few expensive metals, mostly of sheet metal that has to be pressed, welded and assembled. I think that development will accelerate rapidly and that within ten years, hydrogen will be a key component of our society,” says Örjan.