The age of hydrogen

New IEC Standard to accelerate the scaling up of hydrogen and fuel cell energy storage systems

As concerns over climate change escalate, the case for using clean sources of energy becomes obvious. Renewable energy (RE) generation is gaining ground year on year. Many of these RE sources fluctuate, however, and are therefore difficult to harness in the conventional grid. That’s only one of the reasons why hydrogen is gaining new momentum.

Hydrogen can be stored in large tanks

Hydrogen is already used to power electric cars, trains, trams and buses. Several Japanese car makers have championed fuel cell electric vehicles. Unlike conventional vehicles which run on gasoline or diesel, fuel cell cars and trucks combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor. The cars emit water vapour instead of CO2. Trains running on hydrogen have also been launched, notably in Germany and hydrogen-powered trams are common-place in China. Buses using that from of energy are now widesperad across many countries in Europe, Asia and America.

Hydrogen momentum

On a much wider level, multiple experts around the world are seriously contemplating a “hydrogen society” as a complete and sustainable alternative to our fossil fuel-based economies. In June 2019, the IEA published a much talked-about report, The Future of Hydrogen, analysing the current state of play for hydrogen and offering guidance on its future development. “Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum, driven by governments that both import and export energy as well as the renewables energy, electricity and gas utilities, automakers, oil and gas companies, major technology firms and big cities”, says Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director.

Hydrogen can be generated from natural gas and biomass, but also from oil, coal and nuclear energy as well as by electrolysis using renewable energies such as solar, wind or hydro power. Once generated, it can be compressed and liquefied for storage and transportation in fuel tanks. It can even be transported using the existing infrastructure of natural gas pipelines. As a means of energy storage, it compensates the fluctuation of some renewable energy sources.

Using reversible solid oxide fuel cell technology, devices can split water through electrolysis to produce hydrogen, as well as convert hydrogen back to electricity. “Hydrogen can be used to generate power but also for energy storage and this flexibility calls for a standard which deals with the toing and froing between energy generation and storage,” explains Stephen J. McPhail, one of the convenors of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 105 which prepares publications relating to fuel cell technology.

IEC expertise in hydrogen and fuel cell technology

Alongside Tsuneji Kameda from Japan and Hongmei Yu from China, Stephen J. McPhail, who is based in Italy, leads the work of TC 105 WG 13, which has recently published a number of ground-breaking standards relating to fuel cell technology. Among these, IEC 62282-8-201 concerns energy storage systems using fuel cell modules in reverse modes. It establishes performance indicators and test procedures of power-to-power energy storage systems using hydrogen. These systems typically employ a set of electrolyser and fuel cell or a reversible cell for devices of electric charge and discharge.

One of the tests specified in the standard is an electrical energy storage capacity test. Another is a roundtrip electrical efficiency test to determine the amount of net electric energy output which the tested system can deliver. “It is a very complete and robust standard. We based a lot of our work on the Solid Oxide Cell and Stack Testing, Safety and Quality Assurance (SOCTESQA) project, funded by the European Union and we are very happy about the result”, McPhail says.

The publication of the standard should help scale up hydrogen production and storage which, in turn, will reduce the costs of using the technology. “Hydrogen and fuel cell technology can be expensive but by standardizing components and operating conditions in the field, we are paving the way for mass production”, McPhail adds.

In the future, he expects that IEC TC 105 experts will publish a safety standard. “We will also be looking at other vectors of energy beside pure hydrogen, for instance hydrogen carriers such as ammonia, methanol or methane”. Whatever the future holds, hydrogen is expected to play an increasingly important role, helped by key IEC International Standards.