EU Projects Using Solar and Heat To Produce Hydrogen
European Union-funded research projects aim to validate enhanced methods for generating renewable hydrogen with solar energy.
Two projects focused on producing hydrogen from sunlight and heat are currently underway with a combined $5.5 million in funding from the European Union. The pair aim to address critical barriers to renewable hydrogen production at scale – one of many research areas supporting the EU’s 2030 goal to cut at least 55% of net greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen molecules. Image used courtesy of Pexels/by Rafael Classen
Today, most hydrogen production is made with natural gas, emitting carbon dioxide. In contrast, electrolysis produces low-carbon hydrogen with little to no carbon emissions, separating water into hydrogen and oxygen. When powered by renewable energy, electrolysis can make emissions-free green hydrogen. However, high costs have impeded widespread adoption: Electrolysis only represents 4% of global hydrogen production, and an even smaller share (about 1%) is produced with renewable energy, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Natural gas claims nearly half of production, coal’s share is 27%, and oil accounts for 22%.
However, IRENA also reports that the investment costs for electrolyzer plants could fall 40% in the short term and 80% after that by improving electrolyzer design and construction, using more abundant materials, and increasing efficiency.
HYDROSOL-beyond, an EU-funded project headed by the Greece-based Center for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH), uses extreme heat to run chemical processes in a reactor and turn water into green hydrogen without electricity. The project harnesses heat produced at a massive concentrated solar power (CSP) installation in southeast Spain’s Almería.
Solar Platform of Almería (PSA) is Europe’s largest concentrated solar test facility, comprising 215,278 square feet of mirrors that direct sunlight toward a 141-foot tower. Earlier this summer, the site’s temperatures reached a scorching 752 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) amid southern Europe’s historic heatwave, exceeding 113 °F in July.
HYDROSOL-beyond, which received 2.9 million euros (or $3.2 million) in EU funding, started in 2019 and runs through late 2023. According to the European Commission’s website, the project will optimize its production plant to create hydrogen through concentrated solar-thermal power. Technical process control improvements aim to eliminate the remaining barriers to clean hydrogen commercialization and adoption.
Video used courtesy of Plataforma Solar de Almería
Souzana Lorentzou, a CERTH chemical engineer who leads the project, stated the technology has been under development for about two decades, evolving from laboratory- to large-scale installations through five stages. Earlier iterations in the early 2000s and 2010s required scaling up the solar reactor from 100 kilowatts (kW) to 750 kW, according to PSA’s 2022 annual report.
Lorentzou said the project has run into several challenges, including needing to adjust the design of the Almería reactor for stronger durability. Another five years of technological improvements may be required to scale the installation.
A separate project, led by the Leitat Technological Center in Barcelona, uses sunlight and heat to create clean hydrogen. Per the European Commission, GH2 received 2.2 million euros ($2.35 million), starting in October 2022 and running through September 2025.
The three-year project will address efficiency gaps in solar-based electrolysis, including limited light harvesting and slow water oxidation. The proposed solution uses the entire solar spectrum rather than solely ultraviolet (UV) and visible light waves. It will also utilize biomass derivative oxidation. The researchers are eyeing a 60% hydrogen production yield.
GH2’s technology is still in the laboratory stages. Marcel Boerrigter, principal researcher at Leitat Technological Center, said that while the method is promising for eliminating cost barriers to green hydrogen production, it would likely take 10 to 20 years before it’s commercialized.