This solar power plant, of which I am very proud, is installed on the roof of the laboratory for energy technology and is used to produce green hydrogen. The electrolyser is installed in the first Croatian hydrogen filling station in front of my laboratory. With a pressure of 30 bar, this HRS (Hydrogen Refueling Solution) operates the first Croatian hydrogen-powered bicycle, which was also developed in my laboratory.
At the moment I am working on improving the system of green hydrogen production through solar electrolysis. This implies both basic and development research on the new design of electrolyzer stacks with improved efficiency as well as applied research on commercially available system components such as PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) electrolyzer stacks, PEM fuel cell stacks and hydrogen storage tanks. Another new system component that I recently became aware of is the electrochemical hydrogen compressor. It works much like a PEM electrolyzer in the context of the membrane, but since the technology is so new, I'm still learning. But novel innovations like this compressor are exactly why I'm so passionate about hydrogen technology; it opens a great space for the realization of great curiosity for research.
You are guest editor of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. In your recently published article “Hydrogen in the Energy Transition: A Review” you followed the progress of green hydrogen. How would you say that the technology and its applications stand right now? And where do you see it in the near future?
According to the EU hydrogen strategy, energy storage, and especially green hydrogen storage, is key to accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources (RES). If hydrogen systems were built alongside the systems that use RES, the excess electricity from RES variability and interactivity could be stored. According to current forecasts, future production will still come from solar and wind energy, but the compensation for the variability goes to hydrogen. The energy transition to renewable energies is urgently required on a large scale due to the threat of climate change and can be accelerated by the dependence on the mass production of green hydrogen.
In the near future I expect a certain expansion of FCEVs powered by green hydrogen as well as the replacement of natural gas with green hydrogen in steel production, fertilizer production and in some cases for heating buildings, where this is justified. Green hydrogen is also used in the production of synthetic fuels for aircraft and ships.
Kovač's laboratory developed the first hydrogen-powered bicycle in Croatia.Picture: Ankica Kova
Croatia is in the process of implementing a national hydrogen strategy. How will the green hydrogen market in Croatia compare to other European countries?
The government has set up an expert working group with 11 members to develop a proposal for the Croatian hydrogen strategy.
The strategy will provide a national vision of the development, research, production, infrastructure and use of hydrogen and hydrogen technology with the aim of contributing to climate neutrality by 2050, as well as national goals regarding the expansion of the infrastructure for alternative fuels. The aim of the strategy is to decarbonise hydrogen production and use green hydrogen as a substitute for fossil fuels. Croatia's hydrogen strategy will send a clear signal to anyone interested in investing in hydrogen technology that the state is on their side.
I believe that Croatia can find its place in the hydrogen energy industry in all four areas of hydrogen technology, from production to storage to transportation and use of green hydrogen. I have said it many times and now I repeat it: the current situation is such that Croatian companies cannot go wrong by investing in green hydrogen. Among other things, I would like to highlight the possibility of Croatian companies in the field of equipment manufacturing (such as electrolysers and fuel cells, valves, measuring and control devices, sensors, etc.) on the European and world market stage. I would particularly like to emphasize the shipbuilding with hydrogen as propellant and the electric drive (hydrogen fuel cells plus electric motors) in the maritime traffic. It's still a relatively undeveloped area [hydrogen ships] and I am sure that Croatia has a lot to offer. Now we have an exceptional opportunity to create a Croatian hydrogen brand. The only thing we have to do at this point is to be brave: dare to sail in these somewhat unknown waters for Croatian companies and we will not miss the result.
On the world stage, the demand for hydrogen systems is currently so great that the existing production capacities will soon no longer be able to meet the entire demand. If this isn't a good invitation for our company, then I don't know either.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for the development of green hydrogen?
I see the greatest challenge in the fact that the consequences of the global temperature rise above 2 ° C were not adequately presented to the public. Education at all levels should not be neglected. People need to know what is happening, why it is happening, and what the possible outcomes are. It needs to be explained how and why hydrogen technology is replacing fossil fuel based technologies and what the price of hesitation is.
How do you currently see the green hydrogen economy? Will countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia become export superpowers because of their solar advantage over countries in Northeast Asia and Europe, for example?
The key to building a green hydrogen economy is mass production of green hydrogen. Mass production requires cost reduction, functionality and the ability to plan investments and requires a comprehensive regulatory framework. Of course, this also requires sufficient additional RES and the associated transmission infrastructure to the hydrogen production site. In order for the EU to be competitive, it must implement the missing infrastructure as quickly as possible.
According to some research, RES could account for 100% of the primary energy sources in the EU by 2050, of which green hydrogen could account for 20-30%. The current price is not at all attractive (€ 2.50 – € 5.50 / kg), while the cost of producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is around € 1.50 / kg.
European production of green hydrogen alone may not be enough to meet European demand as decarbonising some sectors will require large amounts of green hydrogen. We already have negotiations between countries like Germany and Morocco, Portugal and the Netherlands, Australia with Asian countries, etc. In the meantime, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Chile are striving to become the global export superpowers of green hydrogen. Green hydrogen should become an integral part of the EU's international cooperation in general, including climate diplomacy.
You're a big proponent of hydrogen transport – I'm thinking of the H2LAB project. You were also part of the team that installed Croatia's first hydrogen filling station. How will green hydrogen change the transportation industry?
Yes, I am the head of several projects with implications for the introduction of hydrogen technology at all levels. One of them is the H2LAB project funded by the Croatian Science Foundation. It focuses on advanced methods of green hydrogen production and its transport. These projects include the first Croatian hydrogen-powered bicycle, the first Croatian hydrogen filling station, and the Croatia Mirai Challenge, a road trip from Zagreb to Brussels to raise awareness of CO. to sharpen2-free transportation. This was the first time FCEV was driven on Croatian roads. I am proud to have been behind the wheel.
Hydrogen propulsion is being introduced in all segments of transport, road, rail and sea, and hydrogen technology has advanced so far that ultra-light fuel cells and hydrogen tanks are now also being used in airplanes and drones.
What's next with green hydrogen?
If we look at the EU hydrogen strategy, it is a mass production that is realized by electrolysers that use renewable energies. It is hydrogen storage that is realized in high pressure tanks and it is the conversion of hydrogen into electricity that is carried by fuel cells. Green hydrogen has the potential to be a great alternative, especially since it can be stored in large quantities over a long period of time and can thus bridge seasonal fluctuations in demand. Hydrogen can be transported by truck, ship or pipeline so that energy from renewable energy sources can be stored where it is most efficient. Hydrogen also enables long-distance transport and energy integration without overloading the power grid.
In order to reduce the costs of green hydrogen and for optimization purposes, research, development and innovation are required along the entire value chain. We also need demonstration projects at the industrial level in order to be able to apply hydrogen-based solutions in demanded sectors. The strategic goal is to install at least 6 GW of electrolysers in the EU in the first period from 2020 to 2024 in order to produce up to one million tons of green hydrogen. Given the extremely low prices for electrolysers, it is estimated that green hydrogen will be competitively priced to hydrogen made from fossil fuels by 2030, and that is why hydrogen is the flagship of the energy transition.