Can cars run on oxygen?

Mobility revolution : Will cars run on hydrogen in the future?

As a basic material for fertilizers, ammonia is one of the most widely produced chemicals in the world. Today, ammonia is mainly produced from natural gas, but that would also be possible with green hydrogen. For example in North Africa. Morocco is one of the largest exporters of fertilizers and therefore also one of the largest importers of ammonia.

It doesn't have to stay that way, says hydrogen expert Geert Tjarks. Since the production costs of electricity from solar power plants in Morocco are just under two cents (in Germany it is a good five cents), it made sense to convert the abundant green electricity into hydrogen and then use the hydrogen to produce ammonia.

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Tjarks makes an interesting calculation: If hydrogen were to replace the fossil fuels used in industry today, then as much CO2 could be avoided as Germany alone causes in one year.

The mechanical engineer Tjarks works at NOW, the “National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology”, which is funding a few dozen projects and products with 481 million euros from federal funds until 2022. In the fall, the government wants to present a coordinated hydrogen strategy and probably add many millions more for the promising future technology.

Hydrogen and fuel cells could solve serious problems of the energy and mobility transition: The excess electricity from wind and solar power can be stored as hydrogen. The fuel cell can drive vehicles cleanly. According to a study by the Fraunhofer Society, hydrogen cars with a range of 250 kilometers or more are more climate-friendly than battery-powered vehicles. The longer the range, the larger and heavier the battery has to be: The hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai weighs around 1700 kilograms and the Tesla with battery around 2500 kilograms.

The refueling times of a vehicle with a fuel cell are the same as for gasoline or diesel cars. Hydrogen can be traded globally by ship, and the fuel cell needs fewer critical raw materials than a battery. Platinum is a problem. Around 30 grams of the precious metal are currently required per fuel cell in a car. Platinum is expensive, but it is also easy to recycle. More serious is the cost of the tank, which has to withstand high pressure and is made of carbon fiber. In turn, the higher the number of items, the lower the price.

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“We want to become the model country for the use of hydrogen technology,” Brandenburg's Minister of Economics Jörg Steinbach recently said in the Tagesspiegel. The chemical engineer would like to have an electrolyser on every wind turbine in the market that converts the electricity into hydrogen. "Then there would be an immediate end to giving away excess electricity and turning off wind turbines," says Steinbach, who will be presenting his hydrogen strategy for Brandenburg next week.

Something is already happening in Lusatia. The Federal Ministry of Economics has selected the Schwarze Pump location as one of 20 “real-world laboratories for the energy transition” nationwide. The so-called reference power plant Lausitz is to map the future energy supply based on renewable energy sources with hydrogen as chemical storage. The project costs almost 100 million euros, around four fifths of which is borne by the taxpayer. In five years at the latest, a competitive system should be in place and deliver at least 100 megawatts of energy. And if everything goes according to plan, the green hydrogen will eventually replace the lignite.

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