Hydrogen for thought
“The future often comes later than we expect”
Back in February, King Philippe, along with the entire Belgian press corps, criss-crossed through the sun-drenched sandy plains of Oman, in search of hydrogen. In our own province, Group Bruno, which is already active in the pizza and fuel markets, has plans to open the first hydrogen filling station in Limburg in 2023, in Genk-Noord. But hydrogen is also firmly on the agenda at Hasselt-based Corda Campus. “Businesses and organisations who are now looking into hydrogen will be ready more quickly for new technologies,” predicts POM director Noël Slangen. Hydrogen… isn’t that dangerous?
“Let me take you back to your high school chemistry class for a moment,” proposes Rob Cornelissen, Project Manager for Energy at POM Limburg. “Hydrogen (H2) is the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the universe. The first element in the Periodic Table is a highly flammable gas which has various applications, ranging from combustion in engines to use in the steel or chemical industries. It is not an energy source that can be mined, like coal or oil, but energy can be stored in it, and when burned or used in a fuel cell, it doesn’t emit any CO2. Grey hydrogen is the most common form right now. It is created when natural gas reacts with steam. This also produces hydrogen and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This method of production is therefore not climate neutral. What we really need is green hydrogen. This is produced by simply running water under a current – electrolysis – with renewable energy”.
A lot of faith in it
The benefits are huge. Remember: hydrogen can be used to generate heat and electricity, can be stored in hydrogen tanks and can be transported. And when compressed, it can transport three times more energy per kilogram than oil or diesel. There is a lot of faith in it because the hydrogen economy is already fairly well established. Worldwide, industry already uses 74.5 million tons of pure hydrogen every year, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most of this goes to refineries and the production of ammonia. A further 42 million tons are used in blended form. As a synthetic gas, it is a fuel or feedstock for the chemical sector. The problem is that this hydrogen is 99% grey: it is produced from fossil gas or coal. In 2018, hydrogen production emitted fully 830 million tons of CO2, or 2.5% of global emissions. The hydrogen of the future therefore needs to be green hydrogen, and that will be the real challenge. And here comes the “but”.
But… to make green hydrogen you need green electricity, for example from the sun or wind. Unfortunately, at least 30% of the energy is lost when it is transformed into hydrogen. So you’re always better off using green energy to replace fossil-fuel energy on a one-to-one basis. An example? With an electric car, you get 73% of the solar or wind power. If you first turn that power into hydrogen, you only get 22%. The rest is lost in production and use. And that is the Achilles’ heel of this energy source.
Unfortunately, at least 30% of the energy is lost when it is transformed into hydrogen. An example? With an electric car, you get 73% of the solar or wind power. If you first turn that power into hydrogen, you only get 22%. The rest is lost in production and use.
The hydrogen polemic
This Achilles’ heel is therefore at the heart of the highly polarised debates around batteries versus hydrogen. In the past, hydrogen has already been hyped as the best solution to the energy transition. According to European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, hydrogen is even ‘a rock star ready to go mainstream’. He has therefore given a prominent place to hydrogen in the European climate plans. This energy carrier should and will serve to switch all possible uses from fossil gas and oil to renewable energy, according to its advocates. On the other side are the ‘believers’ in green electricity, who argue that the production of hydrogen involves energy losses, and therefore that scarce green electricity should be used sparingly for the production of green hydrogen. But what is the position of our policymakers in this debate?
Mexican wave at the cabinet of Van der Straeten
The main objective of Federal Minister for Energy Tinne Van der Straeten (Green) is the energy transition. As such, the federal government approved the hydrogen strategy in November 2021, through which it is aiming to make Belgium an import and transit hub for renewable hydrogen, and strengthen Belgium’s role as a pioneer in hydrogen technology. According to Van der Straeten, Flanders will have to become the European green hydrogen hub. This therefore prompted the Flemish dredging company DEME to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Oman, which was greeted with a ‘Mexican wave’ by the Van der Straeten cabinet. It is a sign that the tide is also turning in the business world. As such, in early February, Van der Straeten joined the royal couple and the entire Belgian press corps on the trip to the sun-drenched sandy plains of Oman to highlight this policy. “As an oil and gas producing country, Oman is partly responsible for global warming and now wants to help devise solutions,” the minister told De Standaard newspaper. “The partnership we are entering into is very strategic. There is abundant sunshine and wind here, and Belgian companies are supplying the technology to convert this electricity into green hydrogen. We can then transport this hydrogen to Europe. Belgium cannot produce this green hydrogen entirely within its territory.”
Largest hydrogen network in the world
“In Belgium, we have ports where hydrogen can be brought ashore, and we have gas pipelines that can be converted to hydrogen pipelines,” argues Van der Straeten. “And a not insignificant point, our country is home to just about the largest hydrogen network in the world, at 613 kilometres long. We have major industrial players who are already producing and consuming (grey) hydrogen, we have ports where hydrogen can be brought ashore, and we have gas pipelines that can be converted to hydrogen pipelines. In addition to companies like DEME, there are also shipping companies like Exmar, which specialise in transporting gas by ship. These are unique trumps for a small country like Belgium.”
“Heavy industry is responsible for 30% of CO2 emissions in Belgium,” explains Van der Straeten. “It is precisely this sector that is most suited to switching to hydrogen. To green this sector, we need renewable hydrogen on a large scale. Thanks to the first Belgian hydrogen strategy, it is no longer a distant dream, but a close reality. Indeed, hydrogen is crucial to making industry, heavy freight and shipping more sustainable, as batteries and green electricity cannot always provide sufficient power or storage capacity. This evolution could save up to 1.8 million tons of CO2 per year in Belgium by 2030. And create 10,000 jobs. What’s good for the climate is good for businesses and good for everyone.”
“Hydrogen could save up to 1.8 million tons of CO2 per year in Belgium by 2030. And create 10,000 jobs. What’s good for the climate is good for businesses and good for everyone.”
Federal Minister Tinne Van der Straeten (Green)
But the Flemish government also has ambitious hydrogen plans. “Flanders has the ambition to be a European leader in hydrogen technology,” according to the Flemish coalition agreement. Minister for the Economy and Innovation Hilde Crevits (CD&V) presented the Flemish hydrogen vision in mid-November 2020. This sets out 5 strategic objectives, including research, strengthening the industrial ecosystem, pilot projects and the first industrial realisations, for which €100 million in subsidies will be set aside. Flemish Minister for Energy Zuhal Demir: “Green hydrogen will play an important role if we are to meet our climate goals. Flanders has the ambition to become a leader in the hydrogen economy. Both in the transport sector and for heating our buildings, hydrogen can be a nice complement to electricity-based energy sources, showing us the way towards less CO2 emissions and healthier air for everyone in Flanders.”
“Flanders has the ambition to be a European leader in hydrogen technology”.
Flemish ministers Zuhal Demir (N-VA) and Hilde Crevits (CD&V)
Heating homes with lost energy
One of the largest hydrogen filling stations in Europe is located in Heinenoord in South Holland. “The pump is intended for the hydrogen buses, but trucks should also be able to use it soon,” explains Benelux manager Wouter van der Laak from the Danish company Everfuel, which built the filling station. “You know, one of the advantages of hydrogen is that using it in heavy trucks provides a ‘zero emission’ solution for this sector. And since there is a lot of heavy industry and logistics in Limburg, this could be an opportunity to make heavy trucks cleaner. When a major haulage firm decides to run its fleet on electric power, the nearby area runs the risk of a blackout. The power grid simply cannot handle such demand. And of course, hydrogen is not a miracle solution. Because you need more energy to produce it. But even there we are seeing innovative developments taking place. For example,
Everfuel in Denmark is currently building a 20 megawatt electrolyser. We will be making green hydrogen, about 8,000 kilograms a day. And the residual heat released from this process, which would normally be lost, we can heat about 500-600 homes with it using a new process. That makes an installation like this one a lot more efficient than if this heat were just lost. There are also plans to harness the oxygen released during the process. That’s the way we need to look at projects like this.”
“The pump is intended for the hydrogen buses, but trucks should also be able to use it soon”
Benelux Manager Wouter van der Laak
But Pieter Vingerhoets, a researcher at EnergyVille and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), sees the future differently. He is less enthusiastic about hydrogen as an energy carrier. For systems thinkers, the energy lost when hydrogen is produced remains a thorn in the side. “Hydrogen is interesting if you can’t use a battery or don’t have other ways to become sustainable,” explains Pieter Vingerhoets. “That is primarily the case in industrial applications, or in long-distance transport such as shipping and aviation. In everyday life, I don’t see hydrogen catching on so quickly. To heat a house, you need four times more electricity with green hydrogen than with a heat pump. So it’s not exactly efficient. And that’s the whole point. Any inefficiency in the energy system increases the costs to the community and slows down the energy transition. If the world really wants to open the door to a sustainable energy future, without fossil fuels, it needs batteries as a key element. The cost of batteries has fallen by more than half in recent years. The whole journey to hydrogen for transport applications that can also be electric will only cost us more time and money.”
‘If the world really wants to open the door to a sustainable energy future, without fossil fuels, it needs batteries as a key element. The cost of batteries has fallen by more than half in recent years. The whole journey to hydrogen for transport applications that can also be electric will only cost us more time and money”.
Pieter Vingerhoets, researcher at EnergyVille and VITO
Gerrit Jan Schaeffer, General Manager of EnergyVille, is also in the sceptics’ camp. “From a scientific perspective, it is a shame that public money would go to these kinds of applications of hydrogen. Not only is green hydrogen very scarce and should therefore be used for applications for which there is no alternative, but the alternatives to hydrogen in transport – electric transport – are many times more efficient. As such, EnergyVille has not jumped on board the projects for hydrogen filling stations. In fact, the application of hydrogen here may even slow down the energy transition. That being said, we’ve got nothing against hydrogen here at Thor Park. Hydrogen and its derivatives will play a hugely important role in the energy transition. It would be wonderful if we could develop initiatives for the application of hydrogen in steel and chemistry in Limburg, for example.”
Professor Bart Vermang and the 40 researchers
At the moment, 40-year-old professor Bart Vermang (UHasselt) is leading a 40-member research team that is ramping up the search for sustainable materials for renewable energy. His team is affiliated with the Institute for Materials Research (IMO) at UHasselt, Imec and EnergyVille in Genk. Two years ago, Vermang and his team, together with international partners, achieved a breakthrough with their wafer-thin, flexible solar cells. “If we want to make our energy supply sustainable and reduce CO2 emissions, we need to harness innovative technologies like these,” explains Professor Bart Vermang. “Developing more efficient applications, using cheaper materials and ensuring that the end product can be integrated even more simply and aesthetically are always the driving forces in this regard. That’s the only way we’ll successfully bring about the necessary energy transition in the face of global warming.”
Think big, but think fast!
“But in order to keep that 1.5°C warming within reach, the energy transition must be as rapid as possible,” Professor Vermang continues. “We’re still only at the start. With the development of the solar and wind energy market, Belgium has missed opportunities. We need to learn from those mistakes. Now we need to lead the way. Do we already know whether hydrogen or electrification is going to be the game changer? No, it’s going to be six of one and half a dozen of the other, we need both. Make electricity green and think big in the process! Invest in solar and wind energy. In Belgium, the potential of solar energy is around 100 gigawatts and ‘offshore’ wind about 6 gigawatts. So for wind, look abroad as well.”
“In order to keep that 1.5°C warming within reach, the energy transition must be as rapid as possible. We’re still only at the start. With the development of the solar and wind energy market, Belgium has missed opportunities. We need to learn from those mistakes”.
Professor Bart Vermang (UHasselt)
Limburg pizza and hydrogen
“Electricity is barely 20% of our energy,” warns Professor Vermang. “Electrification where possible is always the most efficient route. But that will not be enough. Then hydrogen and other green elements such as methanol, methane and ammonia come into play. Especially with a focus on decarbonising heavy industry and long-distance transport. Besides, importing hydrogen and other green molecules, and producing it ourselves, could represent economic potential for Belgium. Just think of our ports, industry and research centres. But also in our own province, Group Bruno, which is already active in the pizza and fuel markets, apparently has plans to turn its site in Genk-Noord into the first hydrogen station in Limburg in 2023. That was a smart move, with neighbours including the logistics player H.Essers and the warehouses of Lidl and Ikea. So yes, we need to get started now, get ahead of the curve and think big!”
The first Belgian hydrogen-electric refuse trucks from Lommel
One company already thinking big is E-Trucks Europe. Among other things, they are building hydrogen-electric hybrid refuse trucks at the Kristalpark in Lommel. “The powertrain of these refuse trucks is 100% electric, making them quiet and emitting no greenhouse gases or particulate matter,” explains Business Developer Ben Cornelis of E-Trucks Europe. “To extend the range, a hydrogen system is fitted to the vehicles, which converts hydrogen into electricity, with pure water as a waste product. You can drink a glass of water from the exhaust pipe, so to speak. In this way, the vehicles are available 24 hours a day and stay quiet and clean. In 2013, the first proof of concept rolled off the assembly line. We have since delivered a dozen of them already for the Dutch market. In mid-October, we started construction of the first two Belgian hydrogen vehicles, destined for the city of Antwerp. We are already planning for about 200 hydrogen cars by 2030.”
Chicken and egg
“The market is therefore quietly maturing. One thorny issue is still the chicken-and-egg problem for hydrogen”, Cornelis explains. “In principle, hydrogen can simply be refilled at petrol stations. However, there are still too few filling stations with a hydrogen filling point, so the demand for hydrogen vehicles is still minimal. As far as I am aware, there are only 2 in Belgium, and about 9 in the Netherlands. For a hydrogen refilling station to be commercially viable, you need enough customers who come to refuel. To get around this chicken-and-egg problem, there needs to be cooperation in the chain, so that the supply and demand for hydrogen emerge at the same time locally. That’s why we welcome initiatives like that of the Bruno Group. Indeed, it would be great if the hydrogen-electric hybrid refuse trucks that are made in Limburg could be used here too.”
Diederick Luijten is currently vice president of Air Liquide and responsible for hydrogen activities in Northern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). “I’ve been working for Air Liquide for more than 30 years in various management roles and have seen the potential of hydrogen applications grow enormously. As world leader in gases, technologies and services for Industry and Health, Air Liquide is present in 75 countries with around 66,400 employees, serving more than 3.8 million customers and patients. Oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen are essential tiny molecules for life, matter and energy. They typify Air Liquide’s scientific domain and have been at the heart of the company’s activities since it was founded in 1902.”
Cornerstone of the energy transition
“We want to take the lead in decarbonising industry, especially in Europe. That’s why we are working towards bringing about a low-carbon society, where hydrogen plays a decisive, crucial role. Indeed, as a pioneer in hydrogen, our group is convinced that hydrogen is the cornerstone of the energy transition. Over the past 50 years, we have built up unique expertise that allows us to manage the entire hydrogen supply chain, from production and storage to distribution. This obviously contributes to the widespread use of hydrogen as a sustainable energy carrier for a wide range of applications, such as industrial use and sustainable mobility. Air Liquide has put hydrogen as a decarbonising energy vector at the heart of the energy and climate policies of a range of countries, while supporting European policies to develop a sustainable hydrogen economy. Air Liquide is committed to achieving these different objectives by investing around €8 billion in the low-carbon hydrogen value chain by 2035, and a total electrolysis capacity of 3 GW by 2030.”
An element from stars
Which will it be? A world powered by hydrogen or electricity? “Look, hydrogen is an energy vector, not a form of energy like electricity. This may seem like a detail, but it actually changes everything. Let me explain why. Hydrogen, an element from stars, is one of the most important components of our planet. The advantage of this abundant, colourless, odourless and non-corrosive element is that it contains three times more energy per kilogram than petrol. Because the atoms are so simple – consisting of only one proton and one electron – it is the lightest chemical element. Hydrogen does not occur naturally. It is almost always bound to other molecules, usually to form water, and water, as we all know, covers 70% of the earth’s surface. Hydrogen has been a common feature of industrial innovation over the centuries, ever since the Swiss inventor Isaac de Rivaz used it to power the first hydrogen engine in 1806. Space exploration would of course have been impossible without it. We find hydrogen in a wide range of industries – metallurgy, chemicals, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals – but until recently it wasn’t used for daily transport. Mechanical engineering has traditionally distanced itself from the hydrogen engine. From time to time it has made an appearance, being presented each time as a reinvention of a great idea, but the verdict was always the same: too expensive! Why run an engine on hydrogen, which has to be extracted from natural gas, when you can run directly on CNG or LNG? You can produce hydrogen by water electrolysis. But the process uses a lot of electricity and can therefore be even more expensive.”
“Hydrogen has been a common feature of industrial innovation over the centuries, ever since the Swiss inventor Isaac de Rivaz used it to power the first hydrogen engine in 1806”.
Diederick Luijten (Air Liquide)
“Everything changed with the urgency of the energy transition and the emergence of renewable energy. Renewable sources can produce unlimited quantities of electricity, but not always when it is needed. And that’s where hydrogen comes in. The main problem with electricity is that it has to be used when it is generated. If it is not used straight away, the electricity generated by a wind turbine or solar panel is simply lost. We often refer to ‘unavoidable energy’. Because this electricity would otherwise be lost, cost-effectiveness becomes irrelevant and electrolysing water makes sense. And because it is easy to store, hydrogen offers us a way to store electricity in gas or liquid form, simply by compressing or cooling it. The hydrogen can be converted back into electricity when needed by running a turbine or fuel cell. These familiar technologies offer us a different way of tackling the challenge of climate change. Hydrogen has amazing potential – it could account for more than 20% of global energy demand by 2050 – to help society meet the challenge of the energy transition by bringing renewables into the energy mix and decarbonising the end use of fossil fuels.”
Reducing CO2 emissions from industry, developing sustainable mobility, limiting the use of fossil fuels: hydrogen ticks a lot of boxes. It is simple, but there is huge potential for the coming decades. Hydrogen will really speed up the energy transition.”
Diederick Luijten (Air Liquide)
The Thomas Edison of hydrogen
Are we now at such a turning point like just before 1880? Are we waiting for the Thomas Edison of hydrogen? “We’re more than ready! Air Liquide has more than 50 years’ experience in managing the entire hydrogen supply chain, all over the world, and more than 20 years’ experience in hydrogen applications in various mobility sectors. We can confirm that the prototype and experimentation phases are far behind us. Hydrogen is proving every day to be an excellent solution for transporting and storing electricity. Take the example of the transport sector. It is responsible for around 23% of global CO2 emissions and, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), average emissions per kilometre need to be reduced by more than 70% to meet our carbon neutrality targets. Hydrogen is increasingly emerging as a solution to facilitate this sustainable transport revolution, especially for heavy vehicles such as trucks or ships.”
Sign of the times
“The technology is ready and has already been implemented in several large-scale projects in Belgium and the Netherlands. Now is the time to scale up these solutions, industrialise them, create the markets that will bring about a hydrogen-based renewable economy, and spread the word to the general public. People, public and private ecosystems are starting to understand that hydrogen solutions are more than just answers to a technological and environmental problem. It is a sign of the times of a society that is moving towards a more resilient lifestyle.”
“Based on the scientific debate, we wondered whether POM Limburg should invest in hydrogen,” concludes POM director Noël Slangen. “Hydrogen may indeed not be the technology of the future when it comes to certain lighter applications. But the future often comes later than we think. We therefore also see hydrogen as an interesting transition technology in that field, which can accelerate the innovation and sustainability of our businesses. Just as we see the Einstein telescope as an innovation accelerator for Limburg. Businesses and organisations that are looking into hydrogen today will also be ready for new technologies sooner, where energy storage in particular will play an important role. In addition, there were two decisive reasons why we have committed to hydrogen initiatives for Limburg. Firstly, there is demand among our businesses and that they are also willing to invest in it. And secondly, Europe is strongly committed to hydrogen, and we want to optimally align ourselves with the Flemish, federal and European economic agenda.”