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The driving force

15. August 2023

Without green hydrogen, it will be impossible for industry and the military to achieve carbon neutrality. The processes involved in producing, storing and transporting this prized gas are still not viable on a mass scale. Rheinmetall wants to change that.

Hydrogen

Nothing signifies the hope for a climate-friendly future more than ­hydrogen. When it reacts with ­oxygen, water is formed. And since this is an exothermic reaction, ­energy is released, too, as a by-product – in the form of heat on combustion or electrical energy inside a fuel cell. But the problem is that although it is most commonly present in nature in compound form, generating green ­hydrogen is still a relatively expensive process. It cannot yet be produced competitively on a gigawatt scale. And storing and transporting hydrogen pose additional challenges. So is it worth investing in the necessary ­technology? How economical is hydrogen? How can we put in place the necessary structures?

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(Image: istockphoto / liorpt)

Production

To ensure carbon-neutral water electrolysis, green hydrogen can be best produced wherever sufficient renewable energy is available – so places like southern and western Africa and Australia, for example. In Germany, the federal government is looking to establish an electrolysis capacity of at least ten gigawatts by 2030. Experts anticipate that hydrogen prices will fall. Compared with today, the cost of generating green hydrogen is expected to fall by between one third and one half by the end of the decade.

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(Image: istockphoto / Menzhiliy Anatoly)

Transportation

Whether pressurized, liquefied or bound, by truck, pipeline or ship, hydrogen can be transported in lots of different ways – depending on the quantity and distance. We still don’t know which methods will be deployed in the future.

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(Image: istockphoto / Strekalova)

Application

The primary applications for green hydrogen will be those where there are no alternatives – that is, where hydrogen is needed in vast quantities and therefore where it’s relatively easy to transport, so in the steel and chemical industries and in the form of e-fuels for long-distance and heavy-duty transportation.

Although the forecast figures for global hydrogen demand sometimes vary, market experts can all agree on one thing: the curve is on a steep upward trend. The World Hydrogen Council, for example, estimates that 660 million metric tons of hydrogen will be needed globally by 2050. That’s more than seven times the figure in 2020. And no wonder, because hydrogen is ideal for myriad applications – whether as a raw material in industry, as a synthetic energy source or as a sustainable fuel for fuel cells.

No alternatives in the process and chemical industries

Demand is biggest where there are no alternatives – such as in the process and chemical industries, where it is still obtained from natural gas, a fossil fuel, primarily by means of steam reforming. The associated greenhouse gas emissions are enormous. A much more environmentally friendly way of producing the gas involves the use of electrolyzers, which split water into its constituent parts: oxygen and hydrogen. If the electricity required for this originates from solar power stations or wind farms, the process yields what is commonly referred to as “green hydrogen.”

The production processes needed for this are still highly complex and therefore expensive. But one thing’s for sure: The more cheaply renewable energy can be produced and the more progress is made in further optimizing the water electrolysis process, the more affordable green hydrogen will become. Until these preconditions are in place, however, the currently scarce resource that is green hydrogen will be used where it is the only viable proposition from an environmental point of view, including in the production of “e-fuels” for civilian and military aircraft, heavy-duty transportation and shipping. But it will also play a vital role in the decarbonization of the aforementioned industries.

The unsolved question of transportation

Some of the industries in question – and the steel industry above all – are already working hard to ensure that they will be capable in the future of producing green hydrogen in the immediate vicinities of their production plants. And with good reason, because both the transportation and storage of this volatile and sometimes highly explosive gas are not without their inherent problems and so pose a range of significant challenges.

Transportation over short distances has always generally taken place by road. While the expansion of pipeline systems requires huge investment, specially equipped and modified trucks are a quick and cost-effective option. When it comes to safety, however, they are subject to extremely stringent requirements regarding the tanks and pressurized vessels that contain the hydrogen. Other options involve methanation, for example, which allows chemically bound hydrogen to be transported across the sea in tankers. We still don’t know which methods will prove to be most viable. One thing is clear, however, and that is that without the right logistics, a hydrogen economy is impossible. This will require never-before-seen storage methods and vessels and, in some cases, whole new transportation technology.

Mass production for a mass-market rollout

The market for hydrogen technology is set to witness tremendous growth over the coming years. Shena Britzen, Head of the Hydrogen Programme at Rheinmetall, is certain of this. This is why the technology group is already collaborating with research institutes and customers to develop a new hydrogen ecosystem. “Our aim is to develop market-ready solutions and components for the cost-effective production, storage and transportation of hydrogen,” says Britzen, explaining the company’s strategy. The DAX-listed Group sees itself as a “shovel manufacturer,” as supplier companies for booming industries like to be called in stock market circles. As a technological pioneer, Rheinmetall possesses many years of expertise in the mass production of fuel cell components. The company is an industrial partner in the research and development consortium of the Center for Fuel Cell Technology (ZBT) in Duisburg and a member of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Initiative, which receives financial support from the federal government and state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “We want to make a decisive contribution to the hydrogen economy over the coming years and decades,” says Britzen. The company is investing worldwide to support this mission.

A new generation of electrolysis

Its latest innovation project, which it is implementing in collaboration with two technology partners, involves optimizing the tried-and-tested alkaline electrolysis process. Due to their low power density, conventional plants are capable of producing only a comparatively small amount of hydrogen for every square centimeter of surface area. Their material usage and space requirements are correspondingly demanding. The plan is to make next-generation alkaline electrolysis plants much more efficient and offer much higher power density. This will be achieved thanks to highly advanced, affordable and industrially scalable electrode and membrane components, which will be integrated to form an electrolysis stack and comprehensively tested by the partners working in close collaboration. Thanks to this powerful, low-cost electrode package, “E2ngel,” as this joint project is called, aims to make the process of obtaining hydrogen more cost-efficient than it is today and so make a decisive contribution to the global energy transformation.

Turning up the pressure: tank systems

But electrolysis is not the only area in which Rheinmetall is contributing its development expertise to advance the cause of hydrogen, as Shena Britzen explains. “In our view, the storage and transportation of hydrogen offer huge market potential. In partnership with the Institute for Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University, we have developed a technology for manufacturing innovative pressure tanks. Our mission now is to get this technology to the point of being ready for production.” The project, which is called H2LORICA, is currently in the prototype development and validation phase. Rheinmetall is designing the machinery for enabling mass production in close collaboration with a plant manufacturer. Compared with now, this new manufacturing technology will reduce the winding time by as much as 80% – and with less carbon and more storage capacity, too. A new built-in fire detection system will also enhance the overall safety of the composite pressure tanks.

More supply security for South Africa

Around 9,500 kilometers further south, in Cape Town, the company is already one step ahead. Here in this port city on the southwestern coast of South Africa, subsidiary Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) recently launched a turnkey modular solution enabling the production, storage and transportation of green hydrogen. The development of these shipping containers, which can be deployed as mobile or fixed installations, did not just happen by chance, as the CEO of Rheinmetall Denel Munition, Jan-Patrick Helmsen, explains. “The network infrastructure behind the public power supply in this country is old and, in many places, on the verge of collapse. The amount of energy generated is not enough to supply the numerous consumers in the country. To avoid total blackouts, the state-run energy company turns off the power for several hours a day.” And this “load shedding” is not a problem limited only to private homes, says Helmsen. “The economy in particular has been suffering for years as a result of these forced shutdowns.”

In the rainbow nation where energy is scarce, learning under the glow of gas lamps is part and parcel of everyday life for children in South Africa. To ensure that the lights don’t go out for good, the country’s energy company has for years been forced to turn off the electricity for several hours a day. (Image: picture alliance / REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko)
The people and the economy are suffering, and jobs are in danger. (Image: Getty Images / Anadolu Agency / Kontributor)

Future investment in South Africa

In addition to producing medium- and large-caliber ammunition, Rheinmetall Denel Munition (Pty) Ltd is increasingly serving as a green energy solution provider in South Africa. Since the start of its joint venture with Denel in 2008, Rheinmetall in South Africa has invested more than EUR 200 million.

100

million in infrastructure


75

million in technology and product development


15

million in training, education & scholarships


12

million in renewable energies

Electricity for remote communities

Out of necessity, many companies and communities turn to alternative sources of power. When the lights go out yet again, all the generators roar into life. Instead of polluting diesel generators, self-sufficient, carbon-neutral energy solutions such as those developed by Rheinmetall Denel Munition will ensure the urgently needed supply security in future years. In sunny South Africa, solar energy for producing hydrogen is available in abundance. The production quantity can be tailored to individual requirements.

Rheinmetall also expects sales to be particularly strong in remote communities that are not connected to the public grid. “A shipping container solution equipped with solar panels, an electrolyzer and storage system can supply 30 to 40 homes with electricity around the clock,” says Helmsen. “Our system can be deployed wherever an independent and reliable supply of energy is needed, such as in townships, industrial facilities and military camps.” He and his team are already in talks with interested companies with a view to scaling the technology of the green energy solution provider and making it available for a range of different applications.

How can we ensure an independent, climate-friendly energy supply? One answer to this comes from Rheinmetall, which has developed a mobile, turnkey, modular solution for generating, storing, transporting and processing carbon-free hydrogen.
It consists simply of solar panels, an electrolyzer, pressure tanks and, where necessary, a shipping container for synthetic fuel generation – nothing else!

Blueprint for Down Under

In a similar way, remote communities in Australia can benefit from this brand-new energy generated from shipping containers, too. Around 29% of the Australian population lives in remote rural areas. “We plan to manufacture this modular solution for the Australian market at the Rheinmetall Defence Australia plant in Brisbane,” says Shena Britzen. “Development of the necessary production facilities is already in the planning stage.” The site also wants to start manufacturing electrolysis containers.

Climate front: Decarbonizing the German armed forces

NATO forces in Europe are facing the twin challenges of reducing their carbon footprint and becoming independent of fossil fuel imports. Synthetic e-fuels produced from wind and solar power are a viable proposition in this respect. The production plants required for this could supply NATO’s 5,200-kilometer Central European Pipeline System (CEPS) with climate-friendly fuel. If the green PtX technology is recognized as an important contributor to NATO’s combat readiness, this will significantly accelerate its expansion.


In keeping their land, air and sea transportation running in 2020, the German armed forces emitted a total of

630.000

metric tons of CO2


This is equivalent to around

238.000.000

liters of fuel

(Single Fuel Policy) per year.


60%

of the green energy utilized

can be stored as energy in the fuel. A PV system delivers 0.1 kW of electrical energy per square meter.


23.000

km² of PV surface area

o Generating this quantity of energy from sunlight in Germany (1,650 hours of sunlight per year) would require around 23,000 square kilometers of PV surface area.


EUR 5 – 10

billion

With the technology available today and with scaling effects factored in, estimated total investment in PV and PtX systems would amount to EUR 5 – 10 billion.

Source: Federal Academy for Security Policy / own calculations

The armed forces of the future: On the road to energy autonomy with hydrogen

A secure energy supply guarantees stability. This is true as much for industry and society as it is for the world’s armed forces, whose energy requirements are immense – especially in combat situations. According to experts, NATO’s European combat forces consume more than 262 million liters of fuel per day during the course of operations. So it’s all the more surprising that the military sector barely merits a mention in the public discourse surrounding issues vital to climate policy. Throughout history, new technologies have often been deployed initially for military purposes. Will decarbonization be the exception?

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it became all the more clear that the freedom, economy and security of the western world depend on the availability of energy in sufficient quantities. So it’s more important than ever that we ensure our energy and defence sovereignty and diversify the supply of energy in the military sector over the long term.

E-Fuels: A matter for the state

While the war over the drive system of the future seems to be over in the civilian sector, the above figures make it readily apparent that electric transportation has no future on the battlefield. “Nobody is going to build a charging infrastructure for the armed forces on the front line,” explains Britzen. In any case, because of their small power density, rechargeable batteries would never be capable of covering the high energy requirements of heavy-duty military vehicles. Another decisive factor is time – after all, refueling is faster than recharging, regardless of whether you’re in combat. “We have to think in terms of logistics,” says Britzen. Otherwise, that misses the point.

The alternatives are e-fuels, which can be produced in a carbon-neutral manner using green hydrogen and, in conjunction with combustion-engined vehicles, still provide armed forces with the necessary fuel quality and reliability. Power-to-liquid (PtL) is the method that makes this possible. This technology also offers a viable way of ensuring a self-sufficient and, in turn, crisis-proof supply of energy for NATO’s European troops. “Given recent geopolitical developments, ensuring that our armed forces are self-sufficient in the supply of synthetic fuels must be declared a matter for the state. We need to stop treating fuel as a commodity,” says Britzen, who is a reserve officer (Major) in the German armed forces. “Energy is a critical military capability.”

In combat situations, NATO troops depend on a quick and reliable fuel supply. E-fuels represent an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. ((Foto: Getty Images / Olemedia)

Power-to-X

This term covers all the methods for converting excess green energy to gaseous or liquid energy sources. The “X” stands for either the energy form (gas, liquid, heat) or its application (fuel, chemicals, ammonia).

Push for the hydrogen economy

Sustainably produced synthetic fuels are not yet manufactured industrially. There is still too little hydrogen on the market for this. That is why Britzen does not expect that we will be likely to find e-fuels at gas stations any time soon. But the situation in the military sector couldn’t be any more different. Action is urgently needed in this regard. While existing logistics chains for distributing e-fuels such as NATO’s Central European Pipeline System (CEPS) can remain in use, the Ministry of Defence would have to invest between EUR 5 billion and EUR 10 billion in the expansion of PV and PtL plants, according to Rheinmetall. In war, support comes in the form of mobile shipping container solutions. “With just a few more trucks, brigade commanders could produce their own fuel reserves at a decentralized plant,” says Britzen. “One electrolyzer, one compressor and one shipping container for synthetic fuel generation and another for the refining process – that’s all it takes.” Since the plants are used over many years, this is an investment that truly pays off – and not just in TCO terms. “If the armed forces start leading the way as pioneers of carbon-neutral fuel production, this would be a massive boost for the hydrogen economy,” says Britzen. A push for the market on this scale would never be possible through state subsidies.

Miracle cure for the climate change

The production of e-fuels involves binding atmospheric CO2 by means of green hydrogen to create synthetic fuel and other combustible material. What sounds like a miracle cure for climate change in fact dates back to 1925, when an early form of this process was developed by German chemist Franz Fischer and his assistant Hans Tropsch. Fischer–Tropsch synthesis first gained economic significance during the Second World War because it allowed large quantities of the necessary liquid fuel to be produced from locally mined coal. In the years of Germany’s economic “Miracle on the Rhine,” the idea of coal liquefaction quickly became financially unprofitable due to the low price of oil. But it enjoyed a renaissance just two decades later as the oil crisis took hold.

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