Since 2008, Paul Lucchese has chaired N.ERGHY, the European Association on H2 and fuel cells research, which brings together more than 65 member universities and research centres.
He is also the French representative on the Executive Committee of the Hydrogen Implementing Agreement of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and participates in the International Partnership on Hydrogen Economy. Paul received an Engineering Degree in nuclear engineering from the École Centrale de Paris (1983) and a DEA (equivalent of master) in applied chemistry (1983).
How has the N.ERGHY Research Grouping increased the effectiveness of fuel cell and hydrogen research in Europe?
The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) is a unique public private partnership due to the fact that the research community is considered to be one of the main stakeholders in the decision-making process and is a full member of the FCH JU Governing Board. This is unique among the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI). The reason for this is that the European research community was part of the strategic discussion at the very beginning of the process in 2002, and of the High Level Group and FCH Platform up to 2006. European research was united with one voice from the very start of the technology platform. The core group of European research and technology organisations (RTO) involved in FCH research included such famous actors as ECN (NL), CEA (FR), DLR (GER), VTT (FIN), ENEA (IT), Ciemat (SPA), FZJ (GER) and SINTEF (NOR) who succeeded in bringing together most of the European research community active in the field. From 2007 up to now N.ERGHY has brought together 64 members from 20 countries and we estimate our “workforce” to be at least the equivalent of 1500 man-years, representing probably more than 80% of the European public research effort in the sector. Over the past ten years, there has been a lot of exchange among members, including at least 2 general assemblies per year with intense discussions on priority topics, benefits for research, partnership with the business sector etc. This has resulted in an impressive number of research projects carried out over these years: in the first phase of FCH JU, 26 research projects on hydrogen production, distribution and storage; 30 projects on fuel cells and around 20 projects on transport and refuelling infrastructure were implemented, some of which are still ongoing. This continuous cooperation resulted in a very strong and coherent research community, in which professional contacts at a personal level have been established and expanded.
Public demand for fuel cell electric vehicles will, to a large extent, depend on their cost. How is research helping to make FCH technologies more competitive?
The research carried out over the last fifteen years both in public institutions and in the private sector has allowed significant progress in most of the fields of hydrogen and fuel cells technologies. One example is a decrease in the platinum content in proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC). Less than 40 g of platinum is currently required for a full cell car - this was 10 times higher in the 2000’s. Another example is the fact that a deeper understanding of the electrochemical mechanism of a fuel cell has made it possible to increase its electric efficiency up to 60%. These achievements have made it possible for us to consider the first steps in the commercialisation of products, which is always the most visual example of progress valued by customers. The launch of Mirai car by Toyota last December in Japan is a good example of this.
© Thinkstock/Ryan McVay
What are the main developments in recent years that have improved the performance of fuel cell technology for energy and transport applications?
Over the last seven years, the platinum content for PEMFC was decreased by a factor of 3 to less than 0.8 g/kW at industrial scale and 0.2 g/kW at laboratory scale. In addition:
- Proton-exchange fuel cell (PEFC) systems are now able to operate at -20/-30 °C;
- The lifetime of stationary fuel cells has increased by at least a factor of 3;
- The reliability of small reformers for biogas has improved;
- The power density for PEFC systems for cars (volumetric & gravimetric) has increased at least by a factor of 2;
- High pressure storage at 350 and 700 bar has advanced from laboratory prototype to a qualified ready-to-deploy technology.
Many European start-up companies have stemmed from or continue to work with research organisations: The core technology of SymbioFC comes from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA): it produces fuel cell systems for high-power systems and range extender systems for mobility. Another example is Nedstack, a Dutch PEMFC producer that is working with different research members to improve stack components.
In the sphere of hydrogen production, what is currently the most efficient technology and what alternative production routes are being explored?
The most mature technologies are gas reforming and alkaline electrolysis. Proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers are close to the commercial market stage at large scale and solid oxide electrolysers (high temperature electrolysis) are a very promising technology with high efficiency. However, this technology needs more development to access the market.
There are a number of examples of success stories of cooperation between public research and N.ERGHY members with private companies in the field of production and storage. ITM Power is one of the world’s leading PEM electrolyser manufacturers thanks to the bottom-up approach of the FCH JU. To date it has developed a number of commercial applications such as the recently deployed HFuel vehicle refuelling unit. ITM Power achieved this progress due to its participation in FP7 projects such as SafeFlame together with research partners VTT (Finland) and CESOL (Spain), as well as in FCH JU projects such as ELECTROHYPEM together with research partners CNR-ITAE (Italy), the Joint Research Centre (EU), and CNRS (France).
McPhy Energy is a dynamic start-up company (one of the Top 100 most innovative and promising companies, as evaluated by Global Cleantech) involved in coupling hydrogen production from renewable resources with innovative storage systems. It was founded as a spin-off from the CNRS and CEA (France) research centres. Starting with patents on metal hydride storage in 2008, obtained while working in the EU FP6 projects NESSHY and HYSTORY, it grew successfully in recent years and extended its product line to markets in Japan, the UK and Italy. In 2010, with a vision to develop a global renewable energies storage system, McPhy Energy delivered a prototype with a capacity of 15 kg hydrogen to the French laboratory CEA-LITEN and started its first commercial storage system with a capacity of 4 kg of H2. McPhy will continue to be active in European research projects, namely INGRID. This project involves a system designed to produce hydrogen from renewable electricity by electrolysis, to store it in solid form and to use it via a fuel cell for power production. The system will be demonstrated in the Apulia region (Southern Italy).
A new start-up in France, SYLFEN, will develop and commercialise a reversible high temperature fuel cell/electrolyser for residential applications, able to supply heat and power or to produce syngas or hydrogen from renewable energy at 800°C. The technology was developed by NERGHY member CEA.
Safety is an issue of concern to consumers when it comes to hydrogen technology. What is being done to increase the safety of hydrogen production, distribution and storage?
Safety is regularly addressed in our projects and is a core milestone defined in the Multi-Annual Work Programme (MAWP) 2014-2020. At the components and stack level a lot of testing has been carried out on safety issues in all incident and accident situations. For high pressure tanks, a safety coefficient of 2.35 on burst pressure has been achieved. Tanks are tested under fire, gun shot, and car accident conditions. In the fire-fighting sector, firefighters are developing specific hydrogen-oriented procedures and undergoing training. For production plant and refueling stations, feedback from around one hundred demonstration projects has resulted in a very high level of safety for regular customers when filling their tanks.
How does fuel cell research in Europe compare with the rest of the world? What support do European researchers need to ensure that Europe remains at the forefront of FCH technological developments?
European research is at the forefront of FCH development in the world. N.ERGHY alone brings together 64 research centres and universities and we have a large platform of research expertise in all fields, and with all types of material and fuel cell technologies, ranging from low technology readiness level (TRL) and basic research to applied research and high TRL. In addition to cooperation with industry at the level of applied science, an effective funding scheme has to be ensured for basic research on clean FCH technologies at all levels, including the European. In order to preserve and extend the existing production potential in Europe, it is essential for research to keep a sustainable long-term focus on the technologies of the future. Not constrained by short-term demands regarding utility value, public research institutions have the opportunity for in-depth immersion in the research challenges that have been identified. Given that the FCH JU focuses on research at Technology Readiness Level 3 and above, it is necessary to have a coordinated effort in other Horizon 2020 initiatives and to strengthen synergies with the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) programmes. Another unique contribution can be made by universities in this process, by educating scientists that are able to navigate existing research and/or have enough understanding to determine future successful research paths.