Fuel Cells in Europe

In Europe, the approach to the implementation of the hydrogen economy is somewhat more extended than in the United States. Rather than focusing on immediate short term gains, Europe has recognized that the transition to hydrogen will take place over several decades. In particular, they have seemed to embrace the idea that hydrogen will initially be produced using existing energy systems and only later will be produced from renewable energy sources.

Like the United States, Europe plans on producing energy from conventional fossil fuels in the immediate future with sequestration of carbon dioxide. The difference lies in the fact that the European approach is to liberate hydrogen from those traditional fuels for use in hydrogen fuel cells. The result of this approach is that the problems facing the use of hydrogen fuel cells, namely storage and transport of hydrogen, can be addressed slowly over time. This is a more measured and probably more reasonable approach.

The Plan

The European Commission has outlined a five-step plan for the implementation of a hydrogen energy future as follows:

  • Political Framework – A cooperative political environment that enables new technology big enough market entry within a broader context of future transport and energy strategies and policies.
  • Strategic Research Agenda – Collaborative research across the entire continent and across the planet.
  • Development Strategy – Clear means for moving technology from the prototype stage through demonstration to commercialization. This is to be implemented through prestigious “lighthouse” projects which would integrate stationary power and transport systems in order to form the backbone of the trans-European hydrogen infrastructure by enabling hydrogen vehicles to travel and refuel between Edinburgh and Athens, Lisbon and Helsinki.
  • Road Map for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells – A long-term plan for guiding the transition to a hydrogen future that should include setting targets and decision points for research, demonstration, investment, and commercialization.
  • European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Partnership – A trans- national advisory council designed and tasked with providing advice, stimulating initiatives, and monitoring the progress period

The Future

The European Commission has identified several areas for immediate and ongoing research.

  • Hydrogen production
    • Electrolysis – commercially available but energy intensive
    • Steam reforming –well understood but still leads to carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide sequestration adds cost.
    • Gasification – well understood for heavy hydrocarbons. Still under research and has serious land use implications.
    • Thermochemical cycling – potentially large scale production that may require high temperature nuclear reactors or solar thermal concentrators
    • Biological production – potentially large resource with slow hydrogen production rates and the requirements of large surface areas.
  • Hydrogen storage
    • Compressed gases – well understood and low cost. Relatively small amount of hydrogen can be stored when compared to hydrocarbons.
    • Liquid (cryogenic) – well understood with a high storage density. Unfortunately high energy input costs.
    • Metal hydrides – some technology available that is very safe. Current technology is heavy, expensive, and can degrade with time.
    • Chemical hydrides – well-known reversible interactions. Waste products and infrastructure requirements are difficult to handle.
    • Carbon structures – may allow high storage densities but is not fully understood or developed. Early promise remains unfilled.
  • Fuel cell Systems
    • Transport
    • Stationary
    • Defense and Aerospace