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Hydrogen: How we’re powering change

Hydrogen is considered a technology of the future. But what exactly is the hydrogen economy? What expertise does Fraunhofer IIS offer in this field? And how can companies benefit from it? Prof. Alexander Martin, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen and Chair of Analytics & Mixed-Integer Optimization at Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg has some answers.

Professor Martin, hydrogen is the technology of the future. Do you agree?

Prof. Martin: One thing is clear: in the medium to long term, we need to move away from fossil fuels. Hydrogen will play a key role in the transition to a sustainable energy economy – in fact, it will be impossible to achieve the ultimate goal of energy neutrality without it. With our research expertise, we at Fraunhofer IIS want to play our part in this – and we’re well positioned to do so.

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© Fraunhofer IIS
Prof. Dr. Alexander Martin, director Fraunhofer IIS

The term “hydrogen economy” can be hard to define. How do you understand this term? And what’s Fraunhofer IIS’s take on it? Where do you feel it needs some development?

Prof. Martin: The hydrogen economy is a complex economic system. A transition to a new energy supply system will of course require resolving a broad set of challenges in the coming years. First, the entire process needs to be optimized, starting with how the hydrogen is produced, stored and transported as well as building up the requisite sources of demand. Second, the individual components such as electrolyzers, fuel cells and storage options need research and optimization. And third, the right business models are required: Where does it make sense and indeed is it important to include hydrogen in the energy mix?

© Fraunhofer IIS
With its expertise in nondestructive monitoring, the Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT research division can test fuel cells in real time – while they are in operation.

The opportunities that digitalization offers – say, the use of IoT technologies or AI processes – will also play a key role in all three of these areas. Fraunhofer IIS has expertise in this entire field and can provide input.

Can you be more specific about the know-how Fraunhofer IIS brings to the table?

Prof. Martin: As things stand, Fraunhofer IIS has specialist knowledge in at least four fields of application germane to the hydrogen economy. This means our research division in Fürth can perform nondestructive testing on components for pollutants and defects – cost effectively, in real time and during production. This kind of nondestructive testing plays a major role in making fuel-cell production more sustainable and efficient. 

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© Fraunhofer IIS
With its expertise in nondestructive monitoring, the Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT research division can test fuel cells in real time – while they are in operation.
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© Fraunhofer IIS
Fraunhofer IIS has outstanding expertise in optimizing processes and pipeline management in the field of gas supply, among others. It can apply this know-how to the supply infrastructure for hydrogen, and help increase the efficiency of supply management.
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© Fraunhofer IIS
In Fraunhofer IIS’s Working Group on Supply Chain Services, one thing experts are researching is how to develop successful business models for new markets. They are now harnessing this expertise in their work on business models for the future hydrogen market.

Process optimization is the second key point, especially regarding the transportation of gas. How should the infrastructure to supply the gas be set up, and how should the networks be managed? We have built up wide-ranging expertise in these areas over decades. The third area where we’re active at Fraunhofer IIS is the development of business models for customers. How will customers and their products need to adapt? Take, say, our many years of experience in the production of machinery. This is easily transferable to hydrogen production and supply. Fourth, we have extensive knowledge in the field of artificial intelligence, a topic that’s going to play an extremely important role in the hydrogen world – even more than in other fields. After all, greater economic viability is absolutely critical here, and this is where AI can really add value. And it’s in shaping the digitalization of the hydrogen value chain for the long term that our expertise can really help. 

How do customers benefit from Fraunhofer IIS’s know-how?

Prof. Martin: Fraunhofer IIS is an institute for research and technology. We translate research directly into practice. In other words, we have the right skills in terms of both technology and methods. And with these skills, we can answer the challenging questions that come with setting up hydrogen infrastructures and building a hydrogen value chain. That holds true at the horizontal level of the value chain, for example the sustainable infrastructure, as well as in vertical value creation – the improvement of individual components. And also in the third dimension, when it comes to using digitalization to add value based on acquired data.

In your opinion, what policy framework would best enable applied research in general, and Fraunhofer IIS in particular, to really make a contribution?

Prof. Martin: There is only one way to overcome the challenges that new technologies such as hydrogen pose: Industry, business and science have to work in close collaboration. To accelerate the rollout of the hydrogen economy, we need structures and policies in place that facilitate a close and in-depth information exchange between industry and the research community. And that policy framework needs to be technology-independent because, at the end of the day, the technology that offers the best solution for a given challenge should and indeed will be the one that triumphs.

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We must start putting greater emphasis on treating data as a valuable resource. One solution is the concept of eResourcing, which Prof. Alexander Martin is researching.  

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