Whereas burning fossil fuels forms greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, hydrogen is a cleaner option. The combustion of hydrogen yields only water. This represents an attractive alternative in the transition to a decarbonised economy – hydrogen provides a powerful opportunity to secure sustainable sources of energy. Moreover, many consider hydrogen an interesting “energy vector”, because it allows to safely store energy from some sources of renewable power, which produce intermittently, like solar and wind. Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could deliver economic energy to areas with limited access to sustainable options. Moreover, green hydrogen could cut over 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, directly derived from the fateful fossil fuel economy.
Now, hydrogen “enjoys an unprecedented momentum”, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency. This is further reflected by the public policies implemented in the European Union, the US, and Japan, among other regions. With investments increasing at remarkable rates, research and innovation programmes sprout all over the globe, and different calls catalyse collaborations between public and private partners to push the development of cheaper and more efficient hydrogen technologies. Among others, the European Innovation Council has funded ANEMEL and eight other partner projects in a portfolio programme to produce green hydrogen with breakthrough routes and methodologies. Additionally, European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel recently announced an ambitious agreement with hydrogen manufacturers to double the number of operational hydrogen valleys by 2025.
However, hydrogen still faces hurdles ahead. For starters, only 1% of the hydrogen production is green, globally. Most manufacturers get hydrogen from methane through a process known as “steam reforming”, which generates carbon dioxide as a by-product, on top of the additional carbon emissions derived from keeping the reactors running at very high temperatures and pressures. Generating green hydrogen is more environmentally friendly – the starting materials are simply water and electricity, always acquired from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. The electric current splits water molecules into their components – hydrogen and oxygen.
This process is performed in an electrolyser – a device that’s pretty much like a backwards battery. Instead of converting chemical reactions into energy, the electrolyser uses energy to break the bonds in water molecules to give green hydrogen and a simple and safe subproduct – oxygen, like the oxygen we breathe. At ANEMEL, our multidisciplinary team of academic and industrial researchers develops catalysts, membranes, and stacks – the different components of electrolysers. The different teams across ANEMEL investigate each of the systems separately, but also work together to combine them and, eventually, scale up and commercialise the technology. Although our main goal is increasing the efficiency of electrolysis, sustainability stays at the heart of our strategy.
- Catalysts. Catalysts accelerate chemical reactions. Currently, commercial electrolysers need a series of scarce raw materials: among them pure water and precious metals, such as iridium and platinum. At ANEMEL, our electrolysers will work with catalysts made from much more abundant elements, like iron and nickel, to make hydrogen production greener, and also cheaper.
- Membranes. Because water splitting generates cations and anions –electrically charged particles–, electrolysers need semipermeable membranes to manage them. With sustainability and recyclability in mind, ANEMEL will make membranes free of fluorinated ‘forever chemicals’, compounds associated with long-term chemical contamination.
- Water sources. Today, most commercial electrolysers only work with purified water, which is an increasingly scarce resource. Since we must maintain and preserve as much clean water as possible, ANEMEL designs electrolysers that work with “dirty” and impure water sources, including seawater and wastewater. This will also reduce the reliance on water purification and desalination systems, lightening the logistic load, as well as delocalising and democratising hydrogen production.
- Life-cycle assessment. Finally, a dedicated team will look into the life cycle assessment (LCA), studying several factors such as energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and waste generation. Overall, ANEMEL will provide a comprehensive evaluation of the environmental impacts of the entire electrolyser life cycle, from the extraction of raw material and manufacturing of the device to use and disposal.
The deployment of green hydrogen also faces other challenges, including a lack of international infrastructure for sustainable storage and distribution. However, the European Union is committed to becoming the first climate-neutral continent, and hydrogen is at the heart of this promising pledge. Recently, the EU corroborated its strong commitment to keep contributing to collaborations that will catalyse innovation in the field of hydrogen tackling the most urgent energy challenges while revamping the European economy with new jobs and opportunities. As part of these team efforts, ANEMEL will secure strong connections with key players in the green hydrogen economy, including the European hydrogen valleys, industrial hubs of hydrogen production – fully functional clusters to ensure sufficient supply.
Together, ANEMEL researchers and innovators will ensure the advancement of renewable hydrogen, driving forward the clean energy transition. Eventually, green hydrogen will become a cornerstone in Europe’s –and the world’s– transition to net-zero.