_ Dr. Uwe Hellstern. Stuttgart, 19. December 2022.
State of affairs
In Germany, the construction of wind turbines is being pushed ahead with brute force.
Changes in law have been introduced to overturn the legitimate resistance of the population and individual municipalities.
Achilles heel of the German energy turnaround are the great non-production times of the volatile renewable energies.
As a storage technology for such random energy generation, so-called “green” hydrogen is said solve this general problem of the green energy industry in the long term.
The green minister for economic affairs and climate Robert Habeck has promised to make the country the main production location for hydrogen technologies.
How did the idea of the hydrogen economy come about in Germany?
The original push for the idea of using hydrogen as a substitute energy source for oil and gas probably came from the automotive industry.
For a long time, pure battery solutions were unthinkable for large vehicles because of their low range. Using the well-known technology of fuel cells was a very obvious idea.
As early as 1959, the prototype of a tractor that ran on in-situ generated electricity from a fuel cell was driving in Germany.
In the chemical industry, hydrogen has long been produced in limited quantities as an annoying waste product from chlorine electrolysis. The industry was glad to finally find a good use for this waste product.
Due to the disastrous emissions affairs in the German automotive industry, which for a long time resulted in high financial compensation, the car manufacturers wanted to be absolutely safe from nasty surprises in the form of emission limits in the future.
Combustion product of the use of hydrogen in traffic technology only clean water, that was an unbeatable idea for the marketing strategists at the time of the NOx and exhaust gas scandal.
The storage issue is crucial to the whole theory of renewable energy supply. The legend of green hydrogen was transfigured into an alleged miracle solution. Since no other solution was in sight, this last resort was accepted despite the gaps.
At an expert panel on the hydrogen economy, the head of the gas transport network operator terra-nets in Baden-Wüttenberg admitted that most of the existing gas pipeline network is not suitable for hydrogen.
A completely new network would have to be built. This is also necessary in view of the fact that gas and hydrogen have to be used in parallel for some time.
The statement that existing networks can be used is not only technically but also practically impossible.
What challenges need to be solved?
Distribution and storage
In contrast to other energy carriers or substances transported by pipeline, hydrogen is a very reactive substance. As a reducing agent, the material requirements differ from everything that applies to other aggressive oxidizing substances.
Under normal pressure, hydrogen has a very low substance density. Both transport by ship and storage would have to take place under high pressures greater than 500 bar or in liquid form at the lowest temperature (-253°C).
No geological storage facility currently used by Baden-Württemberg can later be used for hydrogen.
The transport of hydrogen on ships is technically not feasible at the moment. You can actually only transport derivatives. Either in the form of ammonia, or as a synthetic fuel (methanol, etc. …). A reconversion of these forms is not useful or necessary, since these energy sources can be used directly.
At a panel of experts on the hydrogen economy, both the deputy head of Bosch for the hydrogen projects and the representative from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Environment admitted that the requirement for water availability had not been sufficiently taken into account in the hydrogen economy feasibility studies until now.
The assumption that 9-10 litters of pure water are needed to produce 1 kg of hydrogen is rather embellished.
Despite constant green propaganda, operation with seawater has obviously never been calculated.
Production of sufficient quantities
A domestic production of sufficient quantities of hydrogen is considered impossible. The Green Party therefore propagates energy partnerships with traditional energy suppliers (countries in the south).
Long-distance pipelines would have to be laid across the Mediterranean or out of the Middle East to make this really meaningful on a large scale. This would again lead to a variety of dependencies and new geopolitical risks.
To produce 1 kg of hydrogen, you need about 10 liters of drinking water, 8 of which must be fully deionized. The remaining water is plant process water. So 1000 tons of green hydrogen consume 10 million liters of drinking water.
If only seawater is available, it would first have to be fully desalinated in a seawater desalination plant. In view of the price of this water and the expense of these systems, I consider this process to be economically hardly feasible.
Sea water electrolysis as initially propagated by some (including corporate leaders) would be the Tshernobyl of the world oceans due to the spread of chlorate and bromate in sea water.
At a panel of experts on the hydrogen economy, Bosch’s deputy head of hydrogen projects claimed that the electrolysers you use currently have an operating life of 50,000 hours (5.7 years) before essential parts (anodes) need to be replaced.
Based on my 12 years of professional experience, I estimate the service life of electrolysers at 10,000 operating hours (1.1 years) for these components.
However, this only applies if the system is operated consistently with halfway optimal parameters. This is not the case with random energies such as PV and wind.
So far, there have been three main possible processes for producing hydrogen using electricity. The classic alkaline electrolysis AEL and the derived PEMEL have so far worked with anodes coated with iridium oxide, which are very expensive.
The SOEC variant, which works at high temperatures, even needs rare earths in the cathodes.
Membranes are to be replaced depending on the quality of the water preparation. Any disruption to the water preparation shortens the life of this membrane. There are only a few large manufacturers of it, who are already expecting big profits.
Electrolysis systems require a great deal of technical understanding and regular maintenance to operate. Well-trained specialist staff should be available at all company locations and sufficient replacement material at all times.
State of affairs
In Germany there are only a few pilot projects for hydrogen production. So far, none of these have had any relevance in terms of quantity.
Hydrogen generation projects in Norway and Chile are most developed. These are special systems to replace natural gas as a raw material for fertilizer. Ammonia is then produced.
Since the existing process using natural gas is also complex here, the price gap for the fertilizer produced in this way remains small and will actually disappear completely at some point.
The application in the steel industry is also attractive in terms of process technology, because the produced steel should become better. But you need enormous amounts of hydrogen for this. Thyssen-Krupp is currently operating a blast furnace with hydrogen. For a complete conversion, the group would need 700,000 tons of hydrogen. This would require 3,000 wind turbines operating at full annual capacity, as well as 7 million cubic meters of water.
For 2050, Germany is forecast to need up to 500 terawatt hours of green hydrogen. The demand is irrelevant, however, since the bottleneck is the generation plants, i.e. electrolysers.
Until now, hydrogen research has only looked at its use and transport. The fuel cell is an old, mature technology for using the hydrogen produced in the chlor-alkali electrolysis, for which resourceful representatives have talked the politician into hundreds of millions of euros in supposedly necessary research funding.
Electrolysis, as actually a system-relevant component of the hydrogen economy to be introduced in Germany, was examined too late.
Hydrogen just a dream?
Iridium is an important element for the manufacture of electrolysers.
In 2020, just 8 tons of iridium were mined worldwide. It is now the most expensive precious metal in the world. The amount of funding mentioned is not even sufficient for the initial equipment of the electrolysis units, which Germany alone would need.
90 percent of the known iridium reserves are in South Africa. If a European hydrogen economy were to ramp up, this African country would have a monopoly that would be much larger and more powerful than the current OPEC monopoly in the oil industry.
The storage and storage of explosive hydrogen in large quantities is not possible with today’s technology.
Why the dream of green hydrogen will never come true – material aspects
With the current state of technology, not even those raw materials are available globally that are only needed for the original equipment of the electrolysers. After 5 years, the same amount of raw materials would have to be procured again. Electrolysers with a service life of 20 years, as claimed by DLR, are still unrealistic.
Substitute material research for electrolysers has not been very successful so far. The platinum metal ruthenium as a substituent would only be slightly cheaper but would be associated with shorter running times. This applies even more to other substitute materials.
For other metals, there has not yet been any research breakthrough. The chemical industry has been researching chlorine production targets in this area for 70 years. The desperate belief that replacement materials can be found quickly with a lot of research funding is a misconception.
There is a massive water shortage at the planned production sites in the Global South. In addition to electricity, distilled water is also required in large quantities for the electrolysis process. The necessary systems for this process step were simply forgotten up to now.
Transporting hydrogen is a logistical nightmare, whether by ship or pipeline. Actually, only the transport of locally generated derivatives makes sense. Converting them back to Europe is economic nonsense, as they can be better used directly, e.g., in fertilizer production.
Hydrogen just a dream?
Solar cells in desert regions of the south could work 12 hours a day, but the yield might not be as high as hoped. The efficiency of solar panels decreases when the heat is too high. Their efficiency then falls below 10 percent.
Large-scale solar parks then produce even more waste heat that promotes global warming. The huge solar areas that are planned will change the total reflection of the earth.
Due to the high energy losses during electrolysis, transport and even reconversion to electricity, the CO2 avoidance effect is probably significantly worse than when using coal. Green hydrogen is in no way “climate neutral”.
A sufficient number of specialists for the hydrogen economy will not be available in Germany or abroad in the planned time.
Since the electrolysis plants involved contain very expensive materials, the safety aspect has hitherto been insufficiently or not at all taken into account at some locations.
With the magnitude of the required primary power generating plants with a finite service life, further material management questions certainly arise.
Many of the materials used in electrolysis are toxic to highly toxic. Who ensures proper disposal or processing in the third world?
Mining for the necessary raw materials is already destroying groundwater deposits and soil to a considerable extent. Should that be increased?
Hydrogen that escapes acts as a scavenger and extends the life of methane. In this aspect, too, H2 is not climate-neutral.