On the evening of 11 February 2020 a large audience of RSC Belgium members and friends gathered at the British School of Brussels to hear Prof Joris Proost from the Universite Catholique de Louvain deliver a talk entitled 'Towards the Hydrogen Economy: Challenges and Pitfalls'. This lecture followed on from our Cafe Chimique event in November 2019 where Prof Proost was originally hoping to contribute but had to withdraw.
Prof Proost took the audience through the issues around a transition towards a hydrogen-based economy and society. The global energy system requires a profound transformation to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement and in this context, low-carbon electricity from renewable energy sources may become the preferred energy carrier. The share of electricity in all of the energy consumed by end users worldwide would need to increase to 40% in 2050 to achieve the decarbonised energy world envisaged by the Paris Agreement.
However, Prof Proost pointed out that the total decarbonisation of certain sectors, such as transport, industry and uses that require high-grade heat, may be difficult purely by means of electrification. This challenge could be addressed by hydrogen from renewables, allowing large amounts of renewable energy to be channeled from the power sector into the end-use sectors. Hydrogen could therefore be the missing link in the energy transition with renewable electricity used to produce green hydrogen (via water electrolysis), which can in turn provide energy to sectors otherwise difficult to decarbonise through electrification.
Prof Proost emphasised three characteristics of the use of hydrogen that as an energy vector compared to fossil fuels: 1/ it embodied a zero tolerance for carbon (vital to reach climate change targets); 2/ it represented a potential doubling of efficiency; and 3/ it was fully reversible.
Hydrogen is widely used in several industry sectors (refineries, ammonia production, bulk chemicals, etc.), with the vast majority of it currently being produced from natural gas by steam-methane reforming (SMR). Green hydrogen from renewables could replace such fossil fuel-based feedstocks in high-emission applications.
In the transport sector, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) provide a low-carbon mobility option when the hydrogen is produced from renewable energy sources, and offer driving performances comparable to conventional vehicles. FCEVs are complementary to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and can overcome some of the current limitations of batteries (weight, driving range and refuelling time) in the medium to high duty cycle segments. But in the longer run, electrofuels (e-fuels - liquid fuels produced from renewable power) can replace fossil fuels without the need to change end-use technologies.
The talk stimulated a lively question and answer session. Useful report for further reading on the subject is the IRENA report 'Hydrogen from renewable power: Technology outlook for the energy transition' that was published in 2018 and the IEA Report 'The Future of Hydrogen', published in 2019.
Prof. dr. ir. Joris Proost holds a Master and PhD in Materials and Process Engineering from Louvain University (KUL) and after spending three years at Harvard University, he joined the Faculty of Louvain University at Louvain-la-Neuve (UCLouvain) in 2003, where he has been a tenured Full Professor since 2009. His current research interests focus on electrochemical process intensification, with a particular interest on developing new reactor and electrode technologies for renewable hydrogen production. Prof. Proost is currently the Belgian representative at the Hydrogen Technology Collaboration Program (TCP) of the International Energy Agency (IEA), for which he is involved as one of the sub-task leaders on Power-to-Hydrogen. He was also invited as a participant of the high-level strategic IEA H2 workshop in February 2019 in Paris, and acted as a Peer Reviewer of the resulting report that was launched mid-June 2019 at the meeting of the G20 energy ministers in Tokyo.