Turbocharging hydrogen

Climate change is proceeding faster than expected, the energy transition more slowly than had been hoped. Referenzfabrik.H2 aims to accelerate the production of hydrogen systems and open up new business fields for industries such as the automotive sector, in a push Fraunhofer is calling “Fit4H2.”

Fit4H2 – Training in the Referenzfabrik.H2

Six tiny bolts, six matching nuts, and a whole bunch of transparent, black, and colored rectangles: Even a dollhouse-sized demo version of an electrolyzer stack isn’t exactly child’s play to put together. Twenty heads are bent over the miniature parts here at the training room at the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Chemnitz, as 20 people try to stack the parts in an order that makes sense and then hold them in place. With mixed results: “Could there be an extra membrane left over at the end?”

No, of course not. But it’s not a big deal, either. After all, the two-day Fit4H2 workshop at Fraunhofer IWU is all about learning. The goal is to get people better up to speed on hydrogen technology. The participants have come from companies across Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Most are hoping to glean inspiration and insight for new fields of business to explore, for example because the looming discontinuation of combustion technologies will necessitate broadening their product portfolio – or even require the whole company to pivot. Others are already working in the hydrogen sector and are now looking for ways to optimize processes. Home to five vehicle and engine plants and 780 component and machinery suppliers and service providers in the mobility industry, the state of Saxony is known for its focus on the automotive industry. Some 95,000 jobs are clustered in this sector here, more than 80 percent of them with suppliers.

“Hydrocycle”, a hydrogen-powered motorcycle

“We want to gain insight into the technology and the requirements and challenges involved,” Ulrike Michel-Schneider noted during the round of introductions. She is participating in Fit4H2 with Dušan Poliaček, whose company 1to1design, based in Prague, is part of a German-Czech research consortium that is currently working with Fraunhofer IWU to develop a hydrogen-powered motorcycle. 1to1 design’s role in the Hydrocycle project is to design a sleek, lightweight body that still has enough space to accommodate an entire fuel cell system. With that mission in mind, Michel-Schneider and Poliaček want to know not only how a fuel cell is structured, but also how much it can be shrunk down without impairing its power. Poliaček, a designer, is fascinated by the idea of an H2 motorcycle: “There are already purely electric motorcycles, so there isn’t much room for innovation there.” He also thinks hydrogen will allow for more enjoyable rides over longer distances. “Hydrogen can become an important alternative, including for small vehicles.”

Stefan Lohberger
© Fraunhofer / Sven Döring
Keeping things rolling: Stefan Lohberger, a technician at Fraunhofer IWU in Chemnitz, is involved in the development of a hydrogen motorcycle.
Dr.-Ing. Ulrike Beyer
© Fraunhofer / Sven Döring
How do we take the hydrogen sector to the next level? That’s a key question for Dr. Ulrike Beyer, head of Referenzfabrik.H2 at Fraunhofer IWU.

The “cheese” of the renewable energy sector

The hydrogen sector as a technology of the future is a key subject for Dr. Ulrike Beyer, head of Referenzefabrik.H2 at Fraunhofer IWU. If Germany, Europe as a whole, and other countries around the world are to be able to fulfill their decarbonization commitments, a massive increase in the production of renewable energy will be needed. “But renewable energy is like fresh milk: It has to be used right away or turned into a product with a longer shelf life – like cheese,” Beyer explains. “Hydrogen has the potential to be the ‘cheese’ of the renewable energy sector, helping to support the energy transition.”


For that to happen, however, there will need to be an extreme scale-up in the production volume of “green” hydrogen − that is, hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewable energy or biomass. “But H2 technologies aren’t yet designed for industrial mass production, and they’re still too expensive,” Beyer notes right at the start of the workshop. To change that and put the gas on an even footing with fossil fuel energy, including in terms of price, Fraunhofer IWU teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT to create Referenzfabrik.H2 in 2022 and brought in the research content of the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nano Systems ENAS in Chemnitz as well.

In her role as head of Referenzfabrik.H2, Beyer is especially concerned about the fact that both electrolyzers and fuel cells − the two key systems for generating hydrogen and reconverting it to electricity − are still being produced in much too meager unit volumes in Germany these days. “With renewables gaining ever more market share, demand for these technologies will skyrocket between now and 2050,” she says. Industry needs hydrogen for various reasons, such as a substitute for natural gas and as a storage medium for the renewable energy needed to decarbonize production methods. In the mobility sector, demand for H2 is expected to jump in the heavy goods transportation segment first, starting in 2030, and then in aviation and shipping as well from 2040 onward. A recent meta-study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISE predicts that hydrogen will account for four to eleven percent of total final energy demand around the world by 2050. The German federal government’s revised hydrogen strategy postulates that some 50 to 70 percent of the H2 demand expected for 2030 will have to be met through imports. That is, unless domestic production can pick up the pace.

Predictions like these are a clear “signal to get into this market,” Beyer tells the participants, who are diligently taking notes. After all, she notes, there will soon be “a huge shortfall of production technologies,” by which she means the electrolyzers and fuel cells needed to meet future demand. Beyer points to the many start-ups springing up in the H2 technology segment as another sign of this market’s future viability: “We’re in the early days of production development.” The Fraunhofer hydrogen network believes annual value creation for German manufacturers of electrolyzers and fuel cells could come to 10 billion euros in 2030 and 32 billion in 2050.

To tie in with that theme, the message printed on the packs of candy each of the Fit4H2 participants found waiting at their spot is a simple one: “Fueling your value creation.” “To 20 by 27” is Referenzfabrik.H2’s motto: The goal is to lower production costs for hydrogen systems to 20 percent of present-day costs by 2027, making hydrogen technology from Germany competitive. “This could be a way for us to recapture some of the value creation we lost with battery power,” Beyer says.

“To 20 by 27” is an ambitious goal, but in light of global competition, an aspirational vision is what counts. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched what it calls its “Hydrogen Shot” program for the United States, aiming to reduce the costs of clean hydrogen by 80 percent, to one U.S. dollar per kilogram, within the next decade. If others are to keep up, the research and industrial sectors will need to work closely together. Referenzfabrik.H2 has already brought in 25 companies as integral partners in the value chain community and is pressing ahead with further growth. One of the partners is the Schaeffler Group, an international automotive supplier that has already set its sights on a range of hydrogen technology applications. Another is Spreckelmeyer GmbH, a medium-sized artisan business from Lengerich, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, whose core business is mechanical engineering, automation, and robotics. “We also need this down-to-earth, can-do spirit when it comes to advancing the topic of hydrogen,” Beyer points out.

Der Forscher Sebastian Melzer im Technikum des Fraunhofer IWU.
© Fraunhofer / Sven Döring
How can production of bipolar plates (BPPs) be made more efficient? Sebastian Melzer pursues this topic at the pilot plant at Fraunhofer IWU.

Hy-Ventus to provide industrial tailwind

Referenzfabrik.H2 is pushing to bring hydrogen technologies made in Germany to market from two directions. The first of them involves a flagship project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) called H2Giga, in which it has joined forces with Fraunhofer IWU, IPT, IPA and ENAS and with the Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructure of Materials and Systems IMWS in the FRHY project to develop flexible solutions for mass production of electrolyzers. These devices are used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by applying energy. However, mass production of electrolyzers is not yet competitive with the available technologies.

Hence Referenzfabrik.H2’s efforts to provide a tailwind: Hy-Ventus, an innovative electrolyzer stack suitable for high-rate industrial production. Right away on the first day of training, Sebastian Melzer from Fraunhofer IWU takes the group through the individual parts of the stack, including bipolar plates (BPPs) made from half-plates that are mechanically embossed and rolled at high speed and then welded together with an electron beam, all using a method developed in-house. The proton-exchange membranes, embedded in a stable film framework, are sandwiched between the BPPs by porous transport layers (PTLs) or gas diffusion layers (GDLs). Gold-plated contacts at either end of the stack are used for the energy supply. That sounds simple – but when tasked with putting together their own miniature stacks, some of the participants realize the concept hasn’t quite clicked yet: “Where do the gold things go, again?”

Dr. Andreas Willert im Technikum des Fraunhofer ENAS.
© Fraunhofer / Sven Döring
What can be done to accelerate production of fuel cell stacks? Dr. Andreas Willert, Fraunhofer ENAS, is working at the pilot plant at Fraunhofer IWU to figure that out.

Hy-Ventus is currently being designed on a large scale from the manufacturing perspective and is slated to go into industrial production in 2025. It’s about time, too: As Melzer notes, 190 million of these stacks will be needed in order to produce 70 million metric tons of hydrogen globally by 2030. Put together, the BPPs required for this would stretch across 16,000 football fields, and laid end to end, the welds (about one meter per BPP) would reach from the earth to the moon five times over.

The second area of emphasis in Referenzfabrik.H2’s research activities is fuel cells, which it is pursuing with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) as part of the H2GO National Plan of Action for Fuel Cell Production, a joint project of 19 Fraunhofer institutes coordinated by Fraunhofer IWU. The researchers in Chemnitz are working on a range of topics, including how best to produce the membrane electrode assembly (MEA), the centerpiece of any fuel cell stack, in large quantities, making it cost-effective. There are high hopes for inkjet printing for this, explains Dr. Andreas Willert, deputy head of the Printed Functionalities department at Fraunhofer ENAS, who presents the machinery concepts specially developed for this at the pilot plant. One of the challenges here is fine-tuning the viscosity and composition of the coating material in such a way that the print head does not clog and the membrane is coated evenly – and so rapidly that it doesn’t have time to swell or bulge.

The Fraunhofer researchers are also working on error tolerances in the case of electrolysis and fuel cell membranes and bipolar plate production. “Activation, by which we mean breaking in a stack, currently accounts for about five percent of the total production costs,” explains Sören Scheffler from Fraunhofer IWU. “We’re handling that for industry, thanks to our H2 testing lab.” Another objective is to detect the parameters for efficient production conditions. Right now, industry is pursuing a zero-tolerance approach, because even a single faulty MEA massively shortens the lifespan of the entire stack. And that means a lot of waste, which could be reduced if the relevant error tolerances of the stack components were known. There is also still a lack of data for digital simulation of the aging process. Scheffler says the researchers are flying blind in this regard: “Right now, a stack has to be operated for 1,000 hours to be able to say for sure that it can be operated for 1,000 hours.”

A modular technology kit for industry

Referenzfabrik.H2 is tapping into collective intelligence, bringing the science, research, and industrial sectors together with the aim of forming a value chain community that together can ramp up the use of hydrogen technologies in Germany and across Europe. They aim to create a kind of technology kit by putting together building blocks for the production of electrolyzers and fuel cells and offering them for knowledge transfer purposes. A “technology mall” provides key stack components on a modular basis. And technology services provided by Fraunhofer researchers will help partner companies incorporate existing expertise and infrastructures into hydrogen system production.

There are even already plans for the H2 specialists of tomorrow: Referenzfabrik.H2 is the German sponsor of the H2 Grand Prix, which was launched by Horizon Educational, a Czech company. The series invites elementary and secondary school students to work in teams to develop lightning-fast miniature hydrogen-powered vehicles and compete against each other, first nationally and then in international competitions. Last year’s contest was limited to Saxony, but as Katrin Zieger, who is responsible for strategic communication at Referenzfabrik.H2, notes, “Our stated goal is to roll out the Grand Prix program all across Germany.” After all, it’s never too early to get the specialists of tomorrow on board with the idea of “Fit4H2.”


The Referenzfabrik.H2 creates the conditions for industrial mass production of hydrogen systems.

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