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Q&A: Patrick Maio, CEO of HINICIO, a Brussels-based strategy consulting firm specialized in renewable energies with a competence center on hydrogen and fuel cells.

1. What is hydrogen used for?

Hydrogen has been in use for decades all around the word in several key industry sectors such as oil refining, food processing, glass manufacturing, electronics or metal production. Because of its high energy content by unit of mass, hydrogen has also been used since the mid-1960s in the aerospace industry to fuel rockets and to transport satellites. Since the mid-1990s, hydrogen has been pursued as a possible alternative to gasoline and diesel to power passenger cars, especially in the context of constantly growing environmental pressures, climate change and increasing fossil fuel prices. Since a couple of years, hydrogen has also emerged as a possible vector to store large quantities of renewable electricity, which by nature is often intermittent and difficult to store, thereby leading to the emerging concept of “power-to-gas” on which many energy utilities are now working.

2. Why is hydrogen a clean fuel?

In the energy and transport field, hydrogen is often associated to fuel cells, which are electrochemical devices that are able to convert hydrogen into electricity. They work like batteries, but unlike batteries they do not deplete and continue working as far as fuel is supplied. Fuel cells offer very high levels of efficiency compared to traditional combustion engines used in cars, and when fuelled with hydrogen they emit zero emissions from the tank to the wheel; they simply produce pure water. In this respect, hydrogen is a clean transport fuel. Hydrogen can also be produced from a variety of sources and processes. Most hydrogen is produced today through steam methane reforming (“SMR”), which is a very mature production process and certainly the most economic.

The drawback is that it emits large quantities of carbon dioxide. Our studies show that a fuel cell vehicle fuelled running on hydrogen produced from SMR would emit about 30-40% less CO2 than a comparable gasoline car from well-to-wheel. The good news is that when hydrogen is produced from renewable electricity (for example overnight when electricity demand is lower than supply) through a process called “water electrolysis” then you end up with a zero emission transportation fuel from well-to-wheel and a completely clean fuel. This is a Holy Grail that automakers have been going after for many decades and this is the reason why all of them work on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

B-Klasse F-Cell

Mercedes B-Class F-Cell Vehicle. Source: Daimler.

3. What are the key advantages of hydrogen mobility versus electric mobility?

A hydrogen car is an electric car. Once the hydrogen is converted into electricity via a fuel cell in the vehicle, it powers an electric engine comparable to the one contained in all electric battery cars. These vehicles are very similar and embed many common components. What is special about the hydrogen vehicle and constitutes the real added value for the driver is (1) the refuelling of a hydrogen car takes between 3-5 minutes, which is pretty much the same as refuelling a normal car (compared to electric battery cars which require between 20 minutes for fast charges and 8 hours for normal charges) and(2) hydrogen fuel cell cars can already go a distance of over 500 km. Compared to electric battery cars, this offers a totally different perspective in the use of the vehicle, and its associated value. If one comes back to the origins of the automobile 150 years ago, the car is about freedom of movement: it is about going everywhere you like whenever you like; it is one of the most flexible and versatile modes of transport invented and although we see other transport modes emerging, we certainly see hydrogen as the ultimate fuel for automobiles.

4. How big is hydrogen?

The size of the global market for hydrogen already surpasses 50 million metric tons and represents more than €60 billion in annual turnover globally. Hydrogen is already big today but, in order to become a real alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen needs to address two big challenges: (1) production processes need to evolve towards massive production of very low to zero emission hydrogen at an acceptable market price and (2) hydrogen refuelling stations need to be installed step-by-step around key urban and peripheral urban areas. Only then will hydrogen become a commercially-available clean transport fuel accessible to the broader public.

Hyundai FCEV Tucson model to be commercialized in 2015. Source: Hyundai.

Hyundai FCEV Tucson model to be commercialized in 2015. Source: Hyundai.

5. When will we actually be able to buy hydrogen cars in Europe?

Fuel cell hydrogen cars are already available and they are technically fully mature. I have personally tried a few of them from different brands over the last few months, and in general they really offer amazing customer experience, power, range and comfort with absolutely no engine noise. The remaining challenges are now the cost, since these vehicles still need to go through important cost reduction programs, and the availability of hydrogen refuelling stations. In the end, the time required by energy companies and automakers to overcome these challenges will heavily depend on environmental pressures they face and public policies set up to incentivize customers to access the next generation of electro-mobility. The question is not so much when will these hydrogen fuel cell cars reach European consumers, but where will they come from…

IMG_7470 Profile: Patrick Maio, CEO of HINICIO

Over his 15+ years career Maio carried out over 100 consulting assignments in 15 countries in Europe, USA, Asia, North Africa and Latin America. Maio has been advising leading energy utilities, gas companies, industries, and a wide range of start-up companies, cleantech investors, governments and public authorities in developed and developing economies.

Maio leads an international team of engineers, economists and policy specialists advising customers on strategic issues ranging from deployment and financing of renewable energy projects, innovation management and technology transfer, and public policies. Maio currently serves as non-executive director to several renewable energy start-ups. He is a referenced expert on energy and climate change for the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as a Member of the Society of Industry Leaders and the Institute of Directors. Before establishing HINCIO, Maio was a manager at Ernst & Young. He is an electrical engineer graduate and a MBA graduate from Solvay Business School.

This interview featured in Revolve #10 Winter 2013/14 on pages 16-17.