Powering the future: Is hydrogen the answer?

March 16, 2018

Jonas Puck about the future of global energy supply

When it comes to supplying energy for eco-friendly mobility and industrial uses, hydrogen is said to have a bright future. However, Prof. Jonas Puck, Academic Director of the MBA Energy Management and Head of WU Vienna's Institute for International Business, cautions against getting too euphoric.

In the not too distant future, all the cars on our roads will be electric cars. Jonas Puck has no doubt about this. “As far as cars are concerned, the big change will happen, in all areas and around the globe, within the next 20 years.”

Picture of a car engine
How will cars be powered in the future? Will the battery or fuel cell prevail? Photo © CC0 Licence

Batteries vs. fuel cells

The question, though, is which technology will eventually prevail: Batteries, which store electricity, or rather fuel cells, in which hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce electricity. In recent months, the topic of using hydrogen as a possible source of energy has attracted considerable media attention, not least because hydrogen is popular with leading industrial players such as Austrian steel producer voestalpine, which intends to increasingly tap into this energy source in the future. Energy expert Jonas Puck says hydrogen undoubtedly has its advantages: “There is plenty of it available since it is a by-product of chemical processes. The fact that a fuel cell emits water as exhaust is also an argument in favor of the technology.”

Hydrogen is already used not only in road transport but also in manufacturing and even in air traffic. But Prof. Puck cautions against jumping to conclusions and hailing it as a panacea as far as mobility and other areas are concerned. “In terms of powering the future, it is much too early to put all our eggs in the hydrogen basket, so to speak. The battle of technologies has hardly begun, so no one can possibly predict its outcome.” According to Jonas Puck, things are developing highly dynamically. “And there are massive funding programs, which, to my mind, is good.”

Picture of a waterdrop
Water as exhaust of the fuel cell - something that speaks for the use of hydrogen. Photo © CC0 Licence

Energy: Storage and efficiency are the main problems

Prof. Puck notes that, generally speaking, the biggest problem in the context of renewable energy is storing it without losing too much efficiency: “The key question at this point in time is which is the best technology in terms of efficiency gains.” The expert says batteries in cars have the advantage that they can store electricity, adding that, in theory, the same thing could be done with hydrogen, but the double conversion would result in efficiency losses. “Storing electricity in cars would make good sense in the context of smart-grid solutions, though.” Currently, researchers are investigating, inter alia, the question of what type of battery produces the best results in cars; at the moment, lithium-ion batteries are the preferred choice. However, they are problematic in terms of, for instance, resources availability. “It is also perfectly conceivable that there will be hybrid cars equipped with both a hydrogen tank and batteries,” says Prof. Puck.

The big picture is what matters

The most important thing, in Prof. Puck's opinion, is to not just focus on individual uses of energy in particular fields like e-mobility but to always keep the big picture in mind, i.e. in this case energy provision across all fields, from the domestic sphere to the industrial sphere to electric cars. The issue of energy supply has long ceased to be a regional one. Energy has become a global phenomenon that one cannot deal with unless one is aware of the big picture and understands how the individual pieces interrelate and interconnect.

As for the outcome of the battery-vs.-fuel-cell race, Jonas Puck says that it remains to be seen which of the technologies offers the biggest advantages, comparing the situation to the early 1980s when there were several competing video formats: “At the time, we also saw a battle of technologies, and no one could possibly tell, which of them would eventually prevail.”

Renewable energy is one of the main topic of the MBA Energy Management. To get more information about the program, click here.

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