Energy firm turns to rocket science in bid to green transport

The Ariane 5 rocket is fuelled in part with liquid hydrogen. [Photo: ESA]

French energy company Engie is teaming up with aerospace firm the ArianeGroup to steal a march on its rivals in the hydrogen production business, by drawing on expertise gained through Europe’s space programme.

Hydrogen is enjoying a purple patch of policy-maker focus in 2020, as governments are seduced by the potential for zero-carbon fuels for transport and industrial processes and mull large-scale investments in the sector.

Everything from green steelmaking to pollution-free shipping is brought within reach by the promise of hydrogen, which was the focus of a long-term strategy published by the European Commission before the summer break.

But any prospect of a hydrogen revolution is limited by a lack of working prototypes, know-how and widespread coherent investment in infrastructure. French energy utility Engie has therefore decided to tap the space sector for expertise in a bid to get ahead.

Rockets have blasted satellites and astronauts into space using liquid hydrogen for decades, which convinced Engie to enter into a partnership with the ArianeGroup, the company that builds the European Space Agency’s launch vehicles.

“ArianeGroup is one of the few companies in the world to have sound expertise in systems and solutions based on liquid hydrogen,” said the aerospace firm’s CEO, André-Hubert Roussel.

The group operates the largest hydrogen test centre in Europe and boasts forty years of experience handling and using the fuel, as well as more than 1,000 staff in France and Germany that work on the technology.

As part of a new alliance, the aerospace experts will collaborate with Engie in developing hydrogen liquefiers – which convert gas into liquid – before applying that technology specifically to the maritime sector.

The partnership, announced on Thursday (10 September), will also address the needs of rail and aviation.

Airbus has recently declared an interest in the fuel, while the European Commission’s Tudor Constantinescu, speaking at a EURACTIV event on the role of ammonia in the hydrogen chain,  acknowledged there is scope to develop the concept further.

Airbus ponders hydrogen’s flying future

European aerospace giant Airbus sees hydrogen power as “one of the most promising technologies available” to decarbonise air travel and is looking to utilise it as part of plans to roll out a zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

Maersk, the world’s largest container shipper, wants to build a zero-emission vessel by 2030 and has recently teamed up with Danish energy firm Orsted on a project that aims to ramp up production of clean hydrogen over the coming decade.

Engie already provided the hydrogen for a recent test of Alstom’s next-generation train in the Netherlands and is working with an American company to develop the world’s first hydrogen-powered mine haul truck.

“Renewable hydrogen is a vital component of the energy mix and is one of the key industrial tools that will help us bring about the transition over to carbon neutrality,” said  Engie’s interim CEO, Claire Waysand.

Hydrogen can be produced either by using natural gas – and is labelled ‘grey’ as a result – or by using clean energy, when it is classed as ‘green’. The latter option is currently far more expensive but economies of scale are predicted to help slash the price.

Waysand also referred to France’s coronavirus recovery plan, published earlier this week, which targets 6.5 gigawatts of production capacity by 2030 and has earmarked €7 billion to make it happen. 

The French government also said that using the electricity produced by its fleet of nuclear plants offers a ready-made source of clean power. Energy analysts have dubbed that form of hydrogen ‘pink’.

Germany has also entered the hydrogen fray and recently set aside €9 billion. Its strategy initially focuses on energy imports and less on domestic production.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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