Göran Lindbergh: ‘I think we’ve only started to see hydrogen’s possibilities’

Professor Göran Lindbergh is head of department of applied electrochemistry at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and has long been preeminent in the field of the electrification of the transport sector, including fuel cells and the use of hydrogen.

Göran Lindbergh, Royal Institute of Technology

Why is hydrogen such a hot topic now?

I think it's a combination of reasons. Obviously one reason people are talking about it is that we really need to move away from fossil fuels because of the whole climate warming issue. And hydrogen is one way to do that. But then it's also that renewable electricity is becoming much cheaper.

In Scandinavia, the renewables are mainly wind and water, but in the south of Europe there’s also a lot of photovoltaic solar energy being produced. And suddenly the cost of hydrogen based on the use of renewable electricity has become much less expensive. So, these developments have really opened up a lot of new possibilities for hydrogen. Just over the last year in Sweden, we have seen big industrial projects that have made big strides in the use of hydrogen.

Can you give us an example?

The focus has long been on fuel cells and using hydrogen for transportation. But if hydrogen is used only for the transport sector, then it will remain expensive. But last year hydrogen was used to power commercial steel production for the first time.

Hydrogen replaced liquefied natural gas as the heat source in a pilot project at Ovako’s Hofors steel mill in Sweden, in conjunction with Linde, which provided the hydrogen. Hydrogen, produced with renewables, replaced fossil fuels in the production stage. The remarkable thing was that it showed that hydrogen had no deleterious effect on the quality of steel.

This has massive ramifications for the industrial use of hydrogen. Suddenly, the demand from the transport sector becomes only a small fraction of the overall requirement, and the cost of producing hydrogen will drop sharply. The decarbonisation of heavy industry would then be possible.

Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Göran Lindbergh.

What are the immediate challenges for hydrogen’s development?

It’s all about cost. So-called green hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel made by electrolysis using renewable power from wind and solar to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Currently, electrolysis is quite expensive. We need many more large-scale electrolysers, and these will be expensive in the short-term.

To counter this, we will need to build green hydrogen production plants with dedicated renewable energy generation assets in high-resource locations. Having the hydrogen production very close to a significant supply of renewable energy will cut costs and enhance the possibilities for zero-carbon hydrogen.

Also, advances in the steel sector can lead to synergies with green hydrogen efforts in other sectors, such as transport with hydrogen-powered trains, trucks, cars, ships and aircraft. Or in domestic and commercial heating by replacing natural gas in urban gas networks, and industrial processes such as ammonia production.

What are the most exciting developments you’ve seen recently?

The oil company Preem wanted to expand their production of fuels on the west coast of Sweden. And they changed their plans drastically, almost at the last minute, to include a hydrogen element. With Preem’s biofuels they fed in some hydrogen to make the fuel more energy rich.

So, they indirectly feed electricity into their fuels, making what are called ‘electro fuels’. They are working on this with Vattenfall, a Swedish power company, and they’re currently researching the possibility of building a large-scale production facility at their refinery in Lysekil in Sweden.

What do you think is needed for the hydrogen transition to really take off?

I think it has already at least partially taken off. If  you had asked me a year ago about the prospects for hydrogen I would not be as optimistic as I am now, because the projects in the steel industry with Linde had not yet happened.

What’s needed now is much broader awareness of hydrogen among the general public. They need to see hydrogen as an important enabler in the ongoing decarbonisation and electrification of society. And, in the short-term, we need projects that succeed so that it’s obvious that hydrogen is very much a viable energy proposition.

What are your hopes for the future of hydrogen?

I think the use of hydrogen in so many different sectors is the most exciting aspect. Hydrogen can be a fundamental part of the industrial process. It can power cars, trucks and ships. And it can even be used to store energy in our homes. I think we have only started to see the possibilities. The beauty of it is that all that’s needed is water and electricity. Essentially, it's a very simple setup.

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