Hydrogen's H-hour


The International Energy Agency (IEA) presented a first report on hydrogen at released at the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth, held in Karuizawa, Japan. Prof. Joris Proost, Belgium’s representative for the ‘hydrogen’ theme within the IEA, contributed to the report, which was posted online 14 June. Will hydrogen finally establish itself in the energy transition?

On Pentecost weekend, Prof. Proost (UCLouvain Materials and Process Engineering Centre) cycled across Belgium from north to south, from Meerle north of Antwerp to Torgny, in Gaume Province: 400 km in three days! Of course, it was for a good cause (the journey was organised by Broederlijk Delen, a non-profit organisation that invests in rural communities in Africa and Latin America). But we can be sure that, as usual when pedalling (and it’s often, at least 2,000 km per year), Prof. Proost couldn’t help but cogitate concerning ideas about hydrogen. For him, there’s no doubt that hydrogen’s H-hour is upon us. Signs of it are multiplying.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is becoming increasingly important in the debate on global warming because of the urgency of the energy transition. Hydrogen has long been absent from the agency’s proceedings, but that changed a little over a year ago when the IEA decided to write a first world report on the subject, which was published 14 June. More than 140 people from public bodies, companies, and governments established the report’s framework. Among them were only three academic experts, including Prof. Proost (the other two were professors from Oxford University and Delft University of Technology). The IEA presented the report in the margins of the G20 chaired by Japan. ‘For Japan, hydrogen has become a priority’, Prof. Proost says. ‘After the Fukushima disaster, it decided that hydrogen would be the energy of the future. And it wants to take advantage of their G20 presidency.

Group of 11

It took a lot of luck for Prof. Proost to become Belgium’s ‘Mr Hydrogen’. It all started at Sint-Jozef College in Herentals, in the Antwerp Kempen area where he comes from. What career did he want to pursue? Not engineering, because that’s what his father did. Nevertheless, he and his classmates in the Latin-maths section benefitted from an extraordinary mathematics teacher who stimulated young minds. As a joke and challenge, 11 of them decided to take the polytechnic entrance exam to KU Leuven without studying a thing beforehand. Just for the hell of it. And voila: all 11 passed. What now? Which specialisation should he choose? The young Proost toured the laboratories, except that of metallurgy since his father was a metallurgical engineer. ‘But I didn’t like the other specialisations. So I chose metallurgy by default. Fortunately, it was an education that combined material science and chemical engineering. I’ve never regretted it.

His end-of-year project supervisor, Prof. Jef Helsen, really motivated him and pushed him towards research. So he decided to do a PhD at ... IMEC, the Flemish independent research centre for microelectronics, originally termed an interuniversity institute. ‘I was the first metallurgist to do research in electronics’, he says. ‘But after all, the chips, you have to produce them correctly, right?’ What does hydrogen have to with any of this?

Next stop, Harvard, for three years in the laboratory of Prof. Frans Spaepen. ‘He taught me what science really is: designing a system that doesn’t exist to try to answer a question that no one has ever asked.’ Still nothing about hydrogen. Eager to return to Europe, Proost learned that a post had opened up at UCLouvain, because Prof. André Van Lierde, then head of the metallurgy laboratory, had become an emeritus. ‘I was very warmly welcomed,’ Proost remembers, ‘as if they were surprised that a Fleming was seeking a post in Wallonia. I had complete freedom in the direction I wanted to take the lab. My predecessor had a very applied conception of research. So I first cleaned up the lab area of its tonnes of minerals, some from the Congo!’ What about hydrogen? ‘We started working on the electrochemical recovery of metals in wastewater. Hydrogen production is a parasitic reaction, but it worked so well that we gradually focused on it.’ Finally, here’s our hydrogen, though it enters the story as a parasite, by chance. The rest Proost thought up while riding his bike, during the many trips between Kessel-Lo (Leuven), where he lives, and the coast where he likes to go (see ‘Greener hydrogen’ for an overview of his UCLouvain research team’s findings).


In 2015, Wallonia approved the WallonHY research project to develop a more efficient electrolyser (see Greener hydrogen), on one key condition: integrating into one of the IEA's priorities. Prof. Proost got involved, ensured that our country was present in the IEA’s hydrogen group, then was appointed the group’s official representative of Belgium. He was also asked to take part in a specific task force (Task 38), which focused on the production of H2 by electrolysis. He coordinated the analysis of all of the world’s demonstration projects and collected economic data on them, with production cost reduction being an essential element. His work was incorporated into the IEA General Report to the G20.

My personal motivation is to position Belgium on the hydrogen map. The report shows that our region (the North Sea region including the Netherlands, Belgium and the east coast of Great Britain) is considered one of the seven major global markets for H2, because of its development and industrial needs, of course, but also because of the presence of large offshore wind farms, and thus green electricity that must be stored’ (see Greener hydrogen). Moreover, all the expertise is present: in the working group of 140 people who prepared the report, there were nine Belgians, one of the largest delegations, although none represented Belgium as such: Prof. Proost was there as an academic expert, while the others work for the EU, the IEA, Engie or other big energy companies such as the Russian Gazprom.

An expanded report

As is customary, such an international report addresses not only production (green or not) and the current market, but also the storage and use of hydrogen, and of course provides foresight and recommendations to governments.

In terms of green production, that is, from electrolysers powered by green electricity, two trends clash in the report’, Prof. Proost says. ‘The first is that green production should be on the same scale as current production from methane (the residual product of which is CO2, plus or minus eight tonnes per tonne of H2!). So in large 100-MW installations, the H2 would then be distributed to the places of use by truck, for example. Personally, I defended the opposite trend. I think we must try to decentralise production and calculate it according to needs.’ An example using the current use of H2 in the steel or chemical industry: the necessary hydrogen could come from an electrolyser of some MW located within the company. Beyond that, for the current market, the challenge is to lower the price of green hydrogen production (see Greener Hydrogen).

The domestic and transport markets are obviously the potential ones discussed in the report. Nothing is to be taken for granted even if Japan intends to be a showcase at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. All public transportation for the Games will run on hydrogen, and fuel cells will heat and light a number of facilities. ‘The hindrance,’ Prof. Proost says, ‘isn’t fuel cost as in the industrial market, because there H2 is competitive with diesel, gasoline or fuel, but rather the cost of vehicles and fuel cells or boilers. In addition, in the case of transport, an efficient distribution system is required.’ Hence Prof. Proost’s recommendation to start with public transport and captive fleets, whose energy demands are perfectly predictable. The Walloon Region heard him: on 9 May, its government approved the launch of a call for candidates to commission two hydrogen production and distribution stations to supply its TEC regional buses.

For the production of heat and electricity at the domestic level, it’ll take even more time’, Prof. Proost says. ‘Technology is available but it has to make economic sense.’ The facilities remain too expensive or oversized compared to the needs. Rather than houses or individual apartments, it’ll more likely be neighbourhoods and buildings that could be able use hydrogen, probably within about 20 years.

After dismounting his bike and refuelling with oxygen – and hydrogen – Prof. Proost joins his village choir, where he attends to his concern for preserving the Georgian polyphonic songs he’s been singing for several years. ‘It's a tradition that has practically disappeared and is no longer alive in mountain villages in the Caucasus’, he says. Villages he’s already visited twice. Without his bike.

Henri Dupuis



Published on June 20, 2019