Hydrogen can be used in transportations, domestic heating, power generation as well in hard to abate sectors

Hydrogen can be used in transportations, domestic heating, power generation as well in hard to abate sectors

Green  |  Focus On  |  Sustainability

The capabilities of hydrogen for industry and transport

It could make an important contribution to reducing emissions where electrification is more difficult and in sectors hard to abate. The Hydrogen JRP is a research centre by the Politecnico di Milano, for a research chain between universities and the business world

In 2050, the year that Europe has vowed to be climate neutral, hydrogen will cover over 20% of the total energy needs in key sectors of the Italian economy. The same is expected in the rest of the countries engaged in the transition to full decarbonisation. This is one of the first studies of Hydrogen JRP, the Joint Research Platform undertaken by the Politecnico di Milano and its Foundation, in collaboration with some large companies, to develop scenarios and strategies for the production and consumption of carbon-free energy.

In fact, the European Commission estimates that in order to meet the Green Deal targets, the Union will need to increase energy production from renewable sources by more than 500 gigawatts (GW) already by 2030, requiring member states to achieve 40 percent of this target by 2025 as part of their NRRPs. Taking advantage of the opportunity offered by Europe, therefore, is not a futuristic theme, but rather an imminent necessity: that of working to build a new social and energy paradigm and launch a major industrial driver through the implementation of significant infrastructure investments and innovation. 

Among the priorities indicated in the roughly three hundred pages of the NRRP, the Italian government intends to develop, and makes it clear, a technological and industrial leadership in the main sectors of the energy transition (photovoltaic systems, turbines, hydrolisers, batteries) that create jobs and growth through the development of the most innovative areas, starting with hydrogen.

Hydrogen, if used in a complementary manner with other technologies, can in fact contribute significantly to triggering more sustainable and clean industrial processes and can reduce emissions generated by the transport sector, as well as power generation and domestic heating. This would mean for Italy a reduction of CO2 amounting to more than 70 million tons, 20% of today's total emissions. Moreover, thanks to its unprecedented ability to act as a link between the gas and electricity sectors, as well as allowing the accumulation of large amounts of energy and its movement over time and in different areas of the country, hydrogen can provide flexibility to the energy system and a better exploitation of renewable sources. 

In particular, the transportation sector is among the recipients of major transformations involving heavy and long-distance transportation (e.g., commercial vehicles and buses) and non-electrified rail, as well as aviation and parts of light transport. Long-haul transport is responsible for about 5-10 percent of overall CO₂ emissions. With the measures in the NRRP, we could see significant hydrogen penetration of up to 5-7 percent of the market by 2030. On the rail front, however, the focus is on passenger transportation. Currently, about a tenth of our networks are served by outmoded and soon-to-be-replaced diesel trains, making this the right time to switch to hydrogen, particularly where electrification is not technically feasible or is not competitive. 

Hydrogen also plays an important role in "hard to abate" sectors, characterised by high energy intensity and lacking truly scalable full electrification options, such as in the chemical and oil refining industries, or in the steel (Italy is one of the largest producers in Europe, second only to Germany), cement, glass and paper sectors. 

It is therefore clear that the transition to hydrogen requires, on the one hand, highly specialised new skills, and on the other hand, new technologies. Training and research are two mainstays of the change taking place. For this reason, it is essential to find a solid point of union between the academic and industrial worlds through common platforms and joint laboratories, where innovative technologies can be developed and tested. A place to prepare enabling strategies for the sustainable economy. A place to develop best practices for building and maintaining hydrogen infrastructure. 

There are currently five main companies involved in the initiative of the Politecnico and its Foundation. They are part of Hydrogen JRP as founders: Edison, Eni, Snam, A2A and NextChem. However, the intention is to create a real hydrogen supply chain in Italy, expanding participation to the largest number of stakeholders. The first initiatives involve research on the entire value chain: from production, to transport and storage, up to end uses. Two approaches: horizontal projects on cross-cutting issues; vertical projects on specific technologies. The innovation district that is coming to life on the Bovisa Campus around the iconic gas tanks portrayed in Sironi's paintings is giving space to this initiative. Once again, Milan looks ahead. It opens its doors and from here the first steps are taken to promote the competitiveness of the country system.

Ferruccio Resta - Rector of the Politecnico di Milano and President of the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI), he is a member of the technical mission structure at the ministry of Infrastructure and Transport. He has authored over 240 publications and holds seven international patents. In Italy’s industrial community and social fabric, Ferruccio Resta holds various positions, as a member of the BOD of Leonardo SpA, Allianz SpA, Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, Fondazione Silvio Tronchetti Provera, Fondazione Lombardia per l’Ambiente. He is on scientific and advisory boards (Fondazione Enel, NextChem-Tecnimont, SIAM, Fondazione Collegio delle università milanesi). He was appointed Commander of the Italian Republic in 2019.

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