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Interview: "An awakeing comparable to the space race"

Great hopes are associated with green hydrogen. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about using hydrogen on an industrial scale. Steve Hill and Axel Funke talk about current challenges and provide an outlook on the development of the market.

In your opinion, what are currently the greatest technological challenges for the industrial use of hydrogen?

Steve Hill:
The biggest technological challenge is that 200 to 400 MW plants are needed and in demand from industry, but with today’s technology only 10 or 20 MW electrolysers are possible. There are also still a lot of unanswered technological questions regarding the storage and transport of hydrogen so that it can be used industrially – i.e. in large quantities. 

Axel Funke: Storage and transport of hydrogen are so important because the best locations for hydrogen plants are areas with high solar irradiation or with a lot of wind. This, however, makes it necessary to transport the hydrogen. It can be transported in a chemically converted form such as ammonia, methanol or bonded to a carrier such as LOHC (Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carrier). It is also possible to cool the hydrogen into a liquid form, which again requires a significant amount of energy. No one technology has emerged as a frontrunner so far, which means that project developers are focusing on different solutions.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Steve Hill:
They can only be overcome if there is even more investment in technology and intensive cooperation on a global scale. At Bilfinger, we are therefore testing various new processes together with other companies. These include, for example, the use of LOHC that allows hydrogen to be transported safely and efficiently. We are also using innovative approaches to help various companies gradually increase the capacities of their stacks.

Once the breakthrough for industrial use of hydrogen has been achieved, a range of other applications will open up."

Axel FunkeHead of Business Line Integrated Projects

What role does research play?

Axel Funke: Although electrolyser technology is more than 100 years old, the large number of hydrogen technology research projects and plants that have been initiated are extremely important. This is because they contribute significantly to the further development of the technology. For example, Bilfinger is collaborating with the Institute of Thermodynamics at Leibniz University in Hanover and EWE Gasspeicher in the field of hydrogen drying. The drying of hydrogen is a prerequisite if hydrogen is to be put to industrial use. Research into alternative membranes for electrolysers, however, and the use of base metals instead of precious and rare earth metals as catalysts for hydrogen production are also crucial. Without such research activities, the technology needed for the industrial use of hydrogen would develop far too slowly.

How do you see market development with regard to hydrogen? Will the momentum already observed continue or even intensify?

Steve Hill:
I am convinced that we are currently experiencing an awakening comparable to the space race. This is evident from the very high level of investment on the part of companies, the funding programs from the federal states and the interest shown by science and society in hydrogen as an energy storage medium. We don‘t yet know how high the demand for hydrogen actually is, but the potential is enormous.

Axel Funke: I also think the positive momentum will certainly continue. Once the breakthrough for industrial use of hydrogen has been achieved, a range of other applications will open up. One day, hydrogen could also replace batteries in the automotive industry. This is because refueling hydrogen is much faster than charging a battery, and longer ranges are possible with hydrogen. With the war in Ukraine and rising oil and gas prices, hydrogen technology is getting a further boost anyway.

How does Bilfinger support companies in the production, storage and transport of hydrogen? 

Steve Hill:
At Bilfinger we have already gained extensive experience with hydrogen technology – in production, storage and transport. Our outstanding competences in the field of natural gas have been helpful in this regard. We have also already helped a large number of  companies set up hydrogen projects, analyse the economic and legal framework conditions and obtain permits.  

Axel Funke:
With our global reach and our ability to combine competences from very different areas, we offer a comprehensive range of services. Today, we are able to provide our customers with full support across the entire value chain, from feasibility studies to commissioning and maintenance. We therefore see ourselves as a technology integrator for the hydrogen business: We are familiar with the various technological options and which technology is best suited for which purposes.

Contact in case of questions:
Stephen Hill
Global Development Director - Energy & Utilities & Key Account Management
Axel Funke
Head of Business Line Integrated Projects

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