Time for plan A

Hydrogen plays an essential role in sustainable mobility - and naturally also in
Hydrogen plays an essential role in sustainable mobility - and naturally also in shipping.

By Dr. Daniela Müller

Oil, gas and coal were yesterday. Hydrogen could be the key to a green future. Its versatility has made hydrogen a research core area at Graz University of Technology for 50 years.

What was that again about hydrogen, symbol H, a chemical element in the periodic table? That made the Hindenburg explode, removes hair dye and powers a few vehicles? Usually very little of what we learnt at school is remembered about it, apart from the oxyhydrogen gas reaction. Perhaps we also remember that hydrogen is used to preserve food or as a coolant in power stations. That’s about it.

At least that is what Alexander Trattner from the University’s own research institution, the Hydrogen Center Austria (HyCentA) at TU Graz, observes. Here, research has been conducted for 15 years into the economically realistic and technically feasible use of hydrogen as an energy carrier. In Trattner’s opinion, it is precisely these interesting aspects of hydrogen that are often left out of school lessons. For example, that it could be the key to the green energy revolution.

In Austria alone, two thirds of the energy still comes from fossil fuels. Although the country boasts of its "green electricity" from hydropower.

More ideology needed

As a reminder, a fuel cell consists of two electrodes connected by an electrolyte, a thin membrane that generates electricity by combining hydrogen and air. The system was invented in 1838 by Christian Friedrich Schönbein. Since the 1970s, TU Graz along with its networked institutions has been conducting research on the topic. At that time, the hydrogen pioneer Professor Karl Kordesch from TU Graz drove the first hydrogen-powered vehicles through Graz.

Currently, about 160 scientists at TU Graz are working on this. It is one of the top three in Europe in this field.

Korea and Japan, which are a good ten years ahead of the European market in terms of technology, are the pioneers, emphasizes Trattner.

Technology leadership needs an ideology, even if it costs something. And this attitude is still missing in Europe. The fact is that the technology for the fuel cell is expensive, as is the production of hydrogen. But this is no reason not to investigate further, according to Trattner.

HyCentA is the first Austrian research centre for hydrogen with modern test benches and delivery points for gaseous hydrogen.

It approaches the subject matter from different sides. A current project, for example, promotes industrialization in the field of fuel cell technology. Another project offers solutions to the semiconductor industry to meet the growing demand for hydrogen locally and in a "green" way. The Hydrogen Truck (Hy-Truck) project is working on an emission-free, fuel-cell-based solution for the commercial vehicle market.

Hydrogen instead of diesel locomotive

Hydrogen will also be used in the railway sector in future, says Matthias Landgraf from the Institute of Railway Engineering and Transport Economy at Graz University of Technology.

Every effort is being made to operate diesel-powered lines using alternative drive technologies such as hydrogen in the medium term. 2023 will see the beginning of the first practical trial in the Ziller Valley. The Zillertal line will run on hydrogen produced in the nearby combined power plant. Most of the railway lines in Austria are already electrified. The optimization potential concerns "only" about ten per cent of the train journeys that are still diesel-powered. But it is also a matter of making these often not very efficient secondary routes attractive again. Among other things, particularly trains that run autonomously and have more flexible timing because they do not require personnel.

Landgraf also sees great savings potential in track-laying machines used in the railway industry. For example, the ballast bed cleaning machine, which is up to 800 metres long and requires a correspondingly large amount of fuel. The same applies to the numerous locomotives used in shunting operations, which currently account for around one third of fuel consumption.

TU Graz is also involved in research in the field of ocean-going shipping. The University has a majority shareholding in the Large Engines Competence Center (LEC). The LEC has developed a methanol-powered engine that produces its fuel directly on board the ship using hydrogen. Made from the renewable energy sources sun and wind - and from CO2. The CO2 separated during this process is removed from the fuel before it is burned and is therefore no longer emitted. Instead, it is stored on the ship and returned to the methanol production. This creates a closed CO2 cycle for the ship propulsion.

In practice, this means minus 97 per cent CO2 and minus 80 per cent NOx with a 45 per cent increase in energy efficiency.

The application must be reasonable

For Alexander Trattner, the strengths of hydrogen are to be found above all in larger vehicles, in trucks or in shipping. In individual transport, Trattner believes, battery operation will win out. Especially in short distances, if only because of the better efficiency. "All in all, it’s not about playing off the battery or fuel cell against synthetic materials," he explains. Hydrogen must at last be seen as a promising solution, and this includes the aspect of good storage possibilities. Matthias Landgraf has a similar view. "As a mode of transport, the railway must be optimally integrated into a sustainable mobility chain. Every means of transport should be used where it can make the best use of its strengths."

Student teams

Student racing teams such as the TU Graz Racing Team , TERA TU Graz or Autonomous Racing Graz are dedicated to the interdisciplinary mobility forms of tomorrow. They all achieve great success in international competitions.

Researchers at TU Graz are looking for solutions to the burning problems of the present. What topics are currently on their radars and what you can study to change the future, you can find out on TU Graz screenshots.