Fuel Cell Expert Leads Discussion on Hydrogen's Clean Energy Potential

By Angela Jardina

Many countries around the world are turning towards climate-friendly energy, and hydrogen has emerged as perhaps the next major player among clean energy carriers. In Texas, hydrogen-centric energy projects have gained traction as viable solutions for future energy needs.

The Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston recently hosted fuel cell expert Professor Thomas Von Unwerth of Technical University Chemnitz in Germany, who shared the many benefits of hydrogen as a clean energy solution.

Internationally recognized for his expertise and innovation with fuel cell systems, Unwerth directs the Institute for Automotive Research at TU Chemnitz, where he also heads the Department for Advanced Powertrains. He previously worked in research for Volkswagen and the Association of German Engineers VDI.

 “Europe is intensively discussing what we should do in the future; we see a lot of societal problems, a lot of demonstrations and protests because of climate change, and we see the energy crisis that results from the cutting of a gas pipeline,” Unwerth said. “We are now finding less oil than we consume.”

Unwerth discussed how hydrogen compares to other vehicle fueling options. While lithium batteries are more efficient, hydrogen offer advantages in extreme circumstances, such as frigid climate.  

“The hydrogen vehicles have the advantage because hydrogen fuel cells produce their own heat,” he said. “Aside from this, the time it takes to refuel a hydrogen vehicle is much faster than that of a lithium battery vehicle.”

Unwerth indicated that holistically, hydrogen has a multitude of benefits for the future of energy. He said the transportation sector is important to the energy transition conversation because of it being 95 percent dependent on mineral oil. With vehicles as a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, developers considered removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen as a fuel source to burn.

However, that isn’t a catch-all solution and other viable solutions must also be explored..

 “We did quite good work in Germany on the front of wind farming to produce electricity for your vehicle,” Unwerth said. “But even this still leads to carbon dioxide because the electricity is coming partly from fossil fuels.” 

The key, Unwerth shared, is finding a way to produce energy from renewables. This is where hydrogen comes in, as research by TcSUH director and Physics professor Zhifeng Ren suggests that seawater can be converted to green hydrogen via electrolysis, a cleaner and more cost-efficient energy production method.

Additionally, though solar and wind are globally available, both are fluctuating energy sources. As for hydrogen, Unwerth said there is enough of this element bound in water to power Earth for 36.8 billion years, if split by electrolysis. As a result, hydrogen isUnwer considered a lucrative and economically attractive alternative energy source.

Unwerth believes that expanding the net for hydrogen energy production is a worthwhile investment that has already begun.

“We’ve begun this process in Germany, currently with more than 100 fueling stations, and in Europe to install a hydrogen backbone network with pipelines,” Unwerth said. “In the U.S., there already were great developments through the last century in California. We see currently big hydrogen projects showing up in Texas and hydrogen refilling stations are being built in Austin and San Antonio.”