Hydrogen can store and deliver energy in a widely useable form, and it is one of the most promising alternative fuels for future energy applications. It can be produced pollution-free, without carbon dioxide emissions and it decreases our dependence on dwindling oil reserves. However, significant development is needed before hydrogen can be exploited in the same way as conventional fossil fuels. Hydrogen also has associated hazards that must be properly addressed to ensure its safe use and storage. Therefore a coherent and coordinated European strategy is required, which encompasses research and development, demonstration, application and standardisation.
The European Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan identifies fuel cell and hydrogen technologies as crucial technologies contributing to reaching the ambitious goals of the integrated European energy and climate policy with a time horizon of 2020 and beyond.
Fuel cells are like continuously operating batteries producing electricity through an electrochemical reaction (hydrogen is combined with oxygen). Because of their high conversion efficiency, no emissions at the point of use and low noise, fuel cells can in the future play a major role in energy conversion and could partly substitute current power generation technologies. However, many technical and economical challenges remain which is why the JRC set up, inter alia, the Fuel Cell Power Chain Integration and Testing project (FCPOINT), and supports the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU).
FCPOINT helps to speed up the innovation process by contributing to the development of international standards, assessing the performance and durability of fuel cells, and developing models to evaluate the chemical and physical processes in fuel cells. The aim of the FCH JU is to accelerate the development of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies in Europe, enabling their commercialisation between 2010 and 2020. For this initiative the JRC develops methods and facilities for measuring and assessing the performance of hydrogen storage technologies, hydrogen detection techniques and fuel cell systems.
Hydrogen tank testing
Storage of gas under pressure, including hydrogen, is a well-known technique. The use of hydrogen tanks in vehicles, however, in particular in view of the very high pressure, requires new safety and performance studies. In its Gas Testing Facility in Petten, the JRC carries out tests on high pressure vehicle tanks.
To simulate filling up the car at a ’hydrogen tank station’ and the lifespan of a hydrogen tank in a road vehicle, the test tanks are repeatedly filled up in less than 3 minutes and emptied slowly, at least 1000 times. During this process the tanks are monitored for leaks, and the rates at which hydrogen possibly permeates through the tank are measured. Separate permeation tests are also carried out; then the tanks are filled up to 700 bar.
The JRC project Hydrogen Safety in Storage and Transport (HYSAST) looks into safety issues in storing and distributing hydrogen, specifically for transport applications. HYSAST co-organises the 2-yearly International Conference on Hydrogen Safety.
The JRC also has a laboratory for testing potential hydrogen storage materials. It is equipped with instruments that can measure how much and how quickly the materials can store hydrogen and under which conditions. The experiments cover a wide range of materials and testing conditions. This research is complemented by microstructural analyses.
Hydrogen sensor testing
As hydrogen cannot be detected by human senses, special detection devices or sensors are needed to warn of its presence. The JRC has testing facilities where the performance of these sensors is assessed under a wide range of environmental conditions. With its research, the JRC aims to facilitate the commercialisation of better, faster and cheaper sensors, and to contribute to the harmonisation of international standards. By increasing awareness about hydrogen and general energy issues it also tries to engage the public and prepare consumers to the inclusion of hydrogen in Europe’s energy mix.
Hydrogen and fuel cells
Hydrogen and fuel cells