Article by Luxinnovation originally published in Automotive International.

With increasing demand for green mobility solutions, the automotive industry is expected to go through a major technology shift within the next decade or so. Using hydrogen as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel is central to transform the sector.

“Hydrogen is a key element for transitioning from our current energy mix to one that is renewable and fully decarbonised,” agrees Jean Schiltz, Head of Smart Mobility at the Ministry of the Economy. This is confirmed by the national hydrogen strategy that has recently been adopted by the Luxembourg government. It outlines the role of hydrogen in the decarbonisation of Luxembourg’s key sectors in the most energy-efficient way possible.

Hydrogen is a key element for transitioning from our current energy mix to one that is renewable and fully decarbonised.

“The first objective will be to benefit as much as possible from electrification, with hydrogen as an essential complement,” says Mr Schiltz. “There are many transportation use cases and industrial processes for which electrification is not a suitable option. Hydrogen also has a big role to play when it comes to decarbonising long-haul transport and heavy duty applications.”

Hydrogen innovation for the mobility sector

Hydrogen innovation by DMA TechSeveral Luxembourg players are moving forward in the field. Gas control products and systems manufacturer Rotarex, for example, offers high-performance gas control valves designed for hydrogen in automotive applications. Groupe Jourdan, which is specialised in the heavy vehicles sector, is conducting an R&D project aimed at transforming electric vehicles into zero-emission hybrid electric-hydrogen ones. Innovative start-up DMA Tech has developed an internal combustion engine using hydrogen as fuel.

DMA’s technology makes it possible to adapt ordinary, existing engines to run on hydrogen instead of petrol or diesel. “Normally, this process should generate high NOx-related pollution, but our innovation resolves this issue without using complex filtering systems on the exhausters,” comments founder and CEO Jacques Bouvy. “And the cherry on the cake is that we also increase the overall power.” Adapted engines generate high torque at low RPM, which makes DMA’s innovation suitable for trains, lorries, boats, power generators, and so on.

Numerous well-known constructors continue to invest heavily in combustion engines because of their excellent cost-ratio benefits, and we offer them a clean alternative.

After four years of development, the company has resolved most technical issues and obtained patents in Europe and the US. Discussions with several industrial partners are under way, and Mr Bouvy welcomes the enthusiastic market response. “Numerous well-known constructors continue to invest heavily in combustion engines because of their excellent cost-ratio benefits, and we offer them a clean alternative. Our biggest competition is fuel cell, but while our power-to-wheel efficiency is somewhat lower, it comes at one-third of the fuel cell cost. The engine market is huge and diversified, and for many business applications our solution will be better.”

Industrial application

Mobility is one of the priority sectors in the Luxembourg strategy – the manufacturing industry is the other. One of the country’s key players is international engineering company Paul Wurth (part of the SMS Group) that provides technologies for the global ironmaking industry. “Coke-making and blast furnace processes are responsible for 85% of the CO2 emissions of steel production,” explains Assistant Vice-President Ingo Both, who is also Head of H2 / Low-carbon Ironmaking. “Our portfolio is central for our clients in their efforts to reduce their CO2 footprint.” In the past few years, the company has been complementing its efforts to reduce plants’ fossil fuel or coal consumption and improve their energy efficiency by developing hydrogen-based solutions.

In 2019, Paul Wurth took a 20% participation in German cleantech company Sunfire GmbH, which develops and produces high-temperature electrolysers and high-temperature fuel cells. It has also joined German steelmakers Saarstahl and Dillinger in the H2Syngas project aimed at developing a technology using process gases and significant quantities of hydrogen in blast furnace processes. In order to strengthen its scientific cooperation, it is setting up the Paul Wurth Chair in Energy Process Engineering at the University of Luxembourg, which will conduct cutting-edge research in the field of hydrogen processing and related aspects of carbon-neutral industrial processes.

“Coke oven gas already consists of 50% hydrogen, and the first commercial projects valorising this gas stream for metallurgical purposes are already in place,” says Mr Both. “More projects will come in the next 2-3 years. I’m convinced that in the long-term future, most of our revenues will somehow be related to hydrogen.”

Cross-border cooperation

Hydrogen innovation by Luxembourg Institute of Technology and 3D OxidesInternational collaboration is essential for tackling the technology challenges related to hydrogen. Luxembourg is one of the 22 signatory EU member states of the IPCEI (Important Project of Common European Interest) on hydrogen technologies and systems, and the Ministry of the Economy is currently supporting a number of Luxembourg project proposals across this strategic value chain.

“We are also looking into possible cooperation with partners in the Greater Region, for instance when it comes to hydrogen production and procurement,” Mr Schiltz points out. As Luxembourg is an important road transport hub, being part of the European hydrogen grid is important. Energy players Encevo and Creos have partnered with French GRTgaz in the MosaHYc project, which is aimed at creating a new regional and cross-border hydrogen network. The intention is to retrofit two existing natural gas pipelines into a network that will connect Saarland (Germany), Lorraine (France) and the Luxembourg border.

The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) is implementing one of its major hydrogen-related research projects in collaboration with a French start-up, 3D Oxides. The joint project focuses on a technology breakthrough for the green fabrication of hydrogen by coupling renewable energy with electrolysers. “We are investigating a new family of materials that could be used to trigger water molecule splitting though the direct use of solar energy, without first transforming it into electricity,” explains Damien Lenoble, who heads LIST’s Materials Research and Technology department.

LIST is also working on several research projects related to fuel cell technology: improving the durability of fuel cells, reducing the cost by minimising the quantity of catalyst – in particular platinum – needed, and enhancing the overall design by using lightweight materials. A recent addition is research on the use of composite materials to design light, durable and safe hydrogen storage tanks and, a cooperation with the Luxembourg-based European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) on hydrogen processing technology applied to space resources.

Industry uptake

Aligning its research activities with market needs is a priority for LIST, and Dr Lenoble is optimistic about the market uptake of the research results. “If we can demonstrate an efficient solution for the green production of hydrogen, I think industry could quickly adopt the technology, but we will still need another 4-6 years of research to reach that level of maturity. Successful results from our fuel cell research initiatives could be implemented even more rapidly.”

If we can demonstrate an efficient solution for the green production of hydrogen, I think industry could quickly adopt the technology.

Dr Lenoble’s ambition is to offer relevant technology platforms to Luxembourg’s automotive and industrial companies. He also hopes to collaborate with car manufacturers in order to test and assess his department’s technologies in real environments. “If we manage to develop a ‘made in Luxembourg’ technology for solar to hydrogen, we would make a real contribution to solving global warming issues.”

Photo credits: DMA Tech, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology/Olivier Minaire