Europe embraces the hydrogen challenge

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The agriculture wealth does not lie only in food supply, but also in waste production. A European project, started in 2012 and close to its end, has faced the problem of organic waste reuse and, at the same time, the challenge of fuel production from natural and low-environmental impact sources. HyTime obtained an European contribution of 1,609,026 euros under the 7th Framework Program. The project, led by the Netherlands, is the result of collaboration between industries and universities from France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Italy.

The aim of the project was the transformation of grass, straw, molasses or unsold organic goods from supermarkets into hydrogen (H2), with the help of thermophilic bacteria able to convert biomasses to H2 at high efficiency, applying anaerobic digestion to appraise residues.
According to the FAO database, the amount of agriculture crop biomass burned in 2012 was 40 millions of tonnes, an opportunity that must be exploited to facilitate the transition towards the target of 2020, establishing that 10 percent of all energy used for transportation in member states must be generated from renewable sources (Directive 2009/2023/EC).

The use of biomass creates important opportunities for Italy: in our country, the dry weight of burned biomass is almost two millions of tonnes. “It has been estimated that Italy could be able to produce 5-10 percent of the national energetic requirement, using uniquely the biomass residues,” says Angelo Moreno, president of the Italian Association for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (H2IT). In this way, our gas reliance from foreign states could decrease from 85 percent to 75 percent, assuring seven billions euros of savings to our state”.

Hydrogen is a clean energy carrier because its output is only water, making it emission free. When hydrogen production arises from renewable resources, it even becomes a zero impact stuff. “The method proposed by this project, using wasted biomasses instead of food (e.g. maize) is an example of sustainable production of hydrogen,” comments Angelo Moreno.

Moreover, H2 is better than renewable resources, because they are intermittent, uncertain and could not be stored. Instead, hydrogen could be stored and carried as a liquid from a place to another one with trucks, and also with the 2000 km hydrogen-pipelines already present in Europe. These facts, together with its waste origin, could increase the public awareness and approval of the benefits of a clean and renewable energy carrier like H2.

The increased interest of Europe towards hydrogen

Food and chemical factories have produced hydrogen since forever, by the methane or other hydrocarbons reforming. It has been estimated that, each year, 500 millions of cubic meters are produced. Electrolysis of water is another method becoming more popular because of its simplicity.

Europe interest towards hydrogen has started during the 80s: in fact, since 1986 the EU has funded some 200 projects on hydrogen and fuel cell energy technologies. In 2000, five national hydrogen organizations established the European Hydrogen Association (EHA) and started a close collaboration to promote the use of H2 in Europe. In 2003, five researchers supported by 40 assistants have tried to plan future developments of hydrogen economy, and the European decarbonization pathway has been started.

Beside the traditional methods of hydrogen production, other futuristic techniques are stepping up: for instance the artificial leaf, able to perform a sort of photosynthesis, thus making hydrogen from solar light. 

In any case, HyTime is part of a bigger funding policy and research programme, in which the EU has joint forces with European industry and research institutes in a public-private partnership to accelerate the development and deployment of technologies in the most efficient way: Europe has gambled 400 millions of euros on the Joint Technology Initiative (JTI).

Now, European interest in hydrogen is raising, because we need large amounts of cheap energy. We need to control the local pollution in our cities and we have to counteract global warming worldwide; roughly 13 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions come from transportation and betting on H2 could be a part of solution. But the real driving force towards the hydrogen economy is the reduced reliance on foreign oil. Effectively, the European funds for hydrogen are not ceased: new projects will be launched under Horizon 2020 and the H2 research will receive 665 millions of euros from EU.

Hydrogen vehicles and the state of the art

Assisting to hydrogen technology development, a question comes to mind: when will the use of hydrogen as transportation fuel be possible?

All vehicles manufacturers have set and produced hydrogen car prototypes. During this year, a couple of automotive companies have announced vehicles commercialization. However, in Italy the research sector on hydrogen cars is not sustained.

At the same time, Europe is setting the infrastructures to allow the circulation of these vehicles: the SuperGreen Project is organizing the green corridors across EU states, to develop sustainable transport networks by fulfilling requirements covering environmental, technical, economic, social and spatial planning aspects. Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Norway are developing new strategies to satisfy the European requests. Germany has invested 1.4 billions in hydrogen technology development under the National Innovation Programme (NIP), to match the requirements of automotive companies and fuel vendors. In fact, a special issue of the NIP encompasses hydrogen-fuelled vehicles for road transport along with the supply of hydrogen (production, distribution and delivery/refuelling). Hydrogen service stations are expected to increase not only in European states (there was 80 stations in Europe in 2013) but also in Italy: in fact, within 2023 we have to provide for 25 hydrogen service stations.

In this context, Italy pays the lack of national energetic plan, and Angelo Moreno underlines: “To get the European points, Italy should involve researchers, medium and small enterprises, producers and consumers to make a harmonious program”. On the other hand, Italy can mention some important local projects to hydrogen technology development: the experimental park in Venice; the Zero Regio project to develop hydrogen infrastructures for passengers car; the Environment Park in Turin and some private enterprises as SofcPower or Electro Power System with their international relevance.

“In any case, we must remember that hydrogen could be an important solution but not the unique solution.” Angelo Moreno concludes. “We need an agreeable development of all alternative technologies, if we want to get a resolution to energetic and environmental problems”.

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Cronache della ricerca

Gli italiani si classificano terzi fra i vincitori degli starting grant dell’European Research Council, il bando più competitivo dell’Europa dedicato ai giovani ricercatori. Bene quindi per gli italiani (benché in discesa rispetto al bando 2018, dove si erano classificati secondi dietro la solita Germania). Male invece per l’Italia, che vede la maggior parte dei suoi ricercatori primeggiare in università e centri di ricerca all’estero.