Author: Fanny Pohontsch

#diensttalk with Dr. Matthias Jahn about green hydrogen and the dialogue in times of structural change

The employee portrait on Tuesday. In our #diensttalk segment, employees give a small glimpse behind the scenes of Europe's largest institution for ceramics research and reveal what drives them in their research.

Dr. Matthias Jahn has been head of the Chemical Process Engineering department at Fraunhofer IKTS since 2013. At the same time, the Berliner holds lectures at the TU Dresden and is politically and socially active. His technical focus is on the development of processes for the avoidance and utilization of industrial CO2 emissions using ceramic electrolysis technologies.


Is green hydrogen the energy carrier of the future?

It has been decided that we will completely phase out lignite by 2038. Thus, the structural change must be coupled with the consistent expansion of renewable energies. In this context, hydrogen will have to play a major role, because we need hydrogen not only for mobility and as a storage medium, but also in industrial processes such as the steel industry, where the use of green hydrogen can replace coal as a reducing agent. This can mitigate CO2 emissions by up to 95 percent. However, the production costs of green hydrogen are currently still very high, at around 4.50 €/kg. But if the regulatory framework for the market ramp-up is adjusted and we make progress in technology development and infrastructure development on the basis of the catalogue of measures adopted on June 10, 2020 with the National Hydrogen Strategy for Germany, we expect production costs to fall to around 2.50 €/kg. Taking into account the rising CO2 certification costs, the production of crude steel by means of the direct reduction process using hydrogen can be competitive with conventional blast furnace production by 2050.


How is green hydrogen produced and used exactly?

In hydrogen production, electrolysis is the central technology. Studies assume that the installed capacity will grow to 50 to 80 GW by 2050. To achieve this, annual growth rates in electrolyzers capacity in the double-digit MW range must be achieved immediately and in the range of 1 GW by the end of the 2020s. With sunfire GmbH in Saxony, we have one of the most innovative energy companies in the world, especially in the field of high-temperature electrolysis. With Energy Saxony, we have a leading energy cluster and decades of experience in component, process and systems development at the Fraunhofer Institutes located there. Saxony has thus acquired competencies that cover the entire value chain for the provision of green hydrogen – starting with cells or bipolar plates and stacks, through fuel cell systems and electrolyzers.


”For an acceptance of renewable energies it is not enough for the bus to become green, it must also come more frequently in rural areas.”


In terms of use, the question is: How much renewable energy will we have available in the future? Above all, an increase in efficiency is vital. Let us look at the mobility sector: Here, for example, this means that local public transport must be strengthened in order to guarantee affordable mobility for everyone in the future with the available resources of renewable energy. As a rule, the most efficient way to achieve mobility is direct electrification. However, there are also areas such as heavy goods or rail transport – where the lines are not electrified – where hydrogen will play a strong role. In the field of air and sea transport, on the other hand, we will continue to be dependent on liquid energy sources in the long term. Synthetic fuels can be a useful addition there. In other words, we will continue to need a mix of direct electrification, hydrogen and synthetic fuels in the future.


What competencies does the IKTS have with regard to hydrogen technologies?

What we are working on at IKTS are a) the development of ceramic cells, b) stack design for long-term use in electrolyzers – currently 4500 hours with very low degradation have been proven – and c) system integration for coupling electrolysis with chemical syntheses.

Pilot plant for synthesis and power-to-x processes at Fraunhofer IKTS.
© Fraunhofer IKTS
Pilot plant for synthesis and power-to-x processes at Fraunhofer IKTS.

On the one hand, synthesis gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) can be used to generate electricity and heat. On the other hand, hydrogen and carbon monoxide for the synthesis of higher alcohols, waxes or synthetic fuels can be produced from unavoidable CO2 and water vapor in reverse operation mode. In other words, we have the possibility of generating electrical energy on the one hand and using it on the other – so-called power-to-x processes.

In developing the process concepts for CO2 use, I would like to thank my 20 employees, who are of course fundamental for us being able to make such good progress on the issues at all and thus set up a plant for manufacturing high-quality products from CO2 and water. This is only possible because our scientific and technical staff as well as students and doctoral candidates work closely together.

Speaking of students: You are a lecturer at the TU Dresden, Institute of Process and Environmental Engineering, yourself: What is your mission – at the university and generally as a researcher?

It is important, when thinking in terms of future energy systems, that we have well-trained specialists. They should question things critically, form their own opinions and then, if possible, use this in their professional lives to make progress in technological development with regard to climate protection. I am therefore very pleased that we have the opportunity here at the IKTS to actively involve these young people. We need scientific education, but we also need a role that is becoming increasingly important – the general public and its perception. That is why science has the responsibility to inform and to see how it can reach as many people as possible, in addition to the purely technical work. We must not just retreat into our ivory tower, but must also address the public. In a democracy, it is important that as many people as possible get involved and that, as I said, actors from research are also actively involved politically in order to contribute their knowledge of technologies, of systemic connections.


”One must not only retreat to one's ivory tower, but also address the public.”


One intention is also that we should strive for a situation where social commitment is more strongly honored and recognized, where less attention is paid to individual interests and the contribution to the common good is valued. After all, the structural change that faces us is a social process unrelated to individual technologies and regions. A holistic approach is needed to deal with the issues of the future, which will play a particularly important role for the next generations. Today, people are looking for simple answers to complex issues – unfortunately these do not always exist. We must therefore ensure greater understanding. Otherwise, populists will gain the upper hand in public opinion – because they offer simple answers, but they are not the solution to the problem.


What answer do you give to the question about the chances of structural change and what need for action do you see beyond an open dialogue?

In the context of climate change, including hydrogen technology, it is important that everything we do there contributes to maintaining or improving the quality of life. Social acceptance can only be achieved through information and participation. In addition, regulatory framework conditions are of course necessary on the part of politicians so that technologies for CO2 avoidance and use can also establish themselves on the market. Because, of course, the whole thing must ultimately pay off for investors as well. Together with other Fraunhofer Institutes, we presented a hydrogen roadmap to the German government in March with scientific positions that were taken up by politicians in the German Hydrogen Strategy. In addition, it is important both here in Saxony and in general that we expand and use the know-how and technologies we have here and thus generate export opportunities – also for the preservation and creation of jobs. So if we want to have sustainable jobs in the long term, for example in Lusatia or in other lignite mining areas, we must always think industrial development and climate protection together. Because ultimately the future lies in this combination.

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Dr. Matthias Jahn is head of the Department of Chemical Process Engineering at the Fraunhofer IKTS. He talks to us about green hydrogen and structural change.

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