Hydrogen, its uses and what HHLA has to do with it

Hydrogen can be obtained by electrolysis from water and renewable electricity. The element has many uses – for example, as a base material for various products (ammonia, methanol, synthetic fuels) in the chemical industry, in transportation, in the energy sector, etc. It can be transported over long distances in various forms while being used as an energy storage system. Hydrogen is expected to relieve and stabilise power grids because it can store energy for material use, transport it, and release it any time (or anywhere) – for example, when electricity from renewable energy sources is not available.

Hydrogen has been produced for decades using proven techniques and has been primarily obtained from natural gas thus far (grey hydrogen). Vehicles powered by hydrogen or fuel cells have been actively tested since the early 1970s and are already in use, particularly in local public transport.

For a number of years, many of those involved in the energy transition have been convinced that hydrogen could replace many fossil fuels in the long term. However, this requires green hydrogen, which is generated with green electricity (wind, water, sun...). At present, however, there are not sufficient options for generating renewable energies in Europe – and especially in Germany – that would enable production of an adequate amount of green hydrogen.

The federal government’s national hydrogen strategy is thus to import hydrogen from potential producing regions (e.g. parts of North Africa, the Middle East, northern Europe) to be used in the industrial centres of Europe. As a result, there is an acute need for long-range distribution of the fuel.

To really replace fossil fuels, large amounts of (green) hydrogen must be transported over large distances and stored in distribution centres. Pipelines are one option under consideration, though the existing gas network would first have to be technically upgraded.

The compression and storage of hydrogen in pressure tanks or special containers is also already possible but must be further developed for large-scale use. The element can be stored and transported in gaseous form at 200 to 700 bar or in liquid form at minus 253 degrees Celsius in cryotanks.

Another possibility is carrier materials such as ammonia, methanol or other LOHCs (liquid organic hydrogen carriers), which are still being researched and optimised. Materials that can absorb large quantities of hydrogen safely, and which consume little energy and release it without losses, would be suitable for this. LOHCs exist that can store 57 kilogrammes of hydrogen in one litre. This makes them well suited to transporting hydrogen in liquid form without their requiring a great deal of energy for cooling. At the same time, LOHCs allow nearly unlimited and loss-free switching between hydrogen-rich and low-hydrogen states.

HHLA intends to become climate-neutral by 2040 as part of its sustainability strategy. The use of hydrogen as an energy source can make a key contribution to decarbonisation of the company. The focus is on implementing fuel cells in handling equipment and heavy-load road vehicles.

HHLA’s strategy is also to establish profitable growth areas along the transport flows of the future. The company is convinced that hydrogen is a promising sector. HHLA is very well positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities in hydrogen import and transportation because of its network of ports and connections that extend into the European hinterland.

As one of the biggest providers of handling and intermodal logistics services in Europe, HHLA supports the transformation from fossil to hydrogen-based fuels with its expertise and appropriate facilities. The company has set itself the challenge of storing hydrogen and transporting it to the end users in an appropriate form. Furthermore, HHLA will use the opportunities that arise to completely decarbonise logistics chains, for example by pushing the use of fuel cells.

Hydrogen is a natural element that takes the form of gas at normal environmental temperatures. Coal gas that consisted of more than 51 percent hydrogen was already used in households for heating and cooking in the middle of the last century. If an unintended leak occurs, there are usually no problems because no toxic substances are produced. However, since hydrogen is a flammable gas, the usual safety standards must naturally be observed in its handling and storage. The handling and transportation of such goods is part of HHLA’s daily business.

Taking on tremendous tasks

Will hydrogen drive decarbonisation forward? Georg Böttner analyses the new fuel source and is optimistic. He sees many opportunities for HHLA.

Hydrogen is a versatile element and has been used as a base material in the chemical industry for decades. Recently, however, it has also been a source of hope in terms of the energy transition. That is why we are looking at hydrogen in this issue of the HHLA magazine. Our guest is Georg Büttner. He’s responsible for the hydrogen strategy at the Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG. Georg, tell us how you got this exciting job.
It was a long road to this exciting job. I’ve been working in the Port of Hamburg since 2004 in various functions, from lawyer to managing director of an energy company, a service company and a container terminal. This means I have a really good overview of what goes on here at the Port of Hamburg.

Then let’s start with the central question: what makes hydrogen so attractive an energy source that everyone is now talking about it?
That is a wide field and a big question. I’ll try to keep it short. In the past year, we’ve been making some changes in terms of the energy transition. We want to get out of nuclear energy. We want to shut down the coal-fired power stations. We want to roll back the use of fossil fuels altogether. And all of this has to be achieved in an industrial nation. Of course it helps to electrify as much as possible, but I also think about the steel industry, the chemical industry and especially about heavy-load road vehicles, which are dependent on a material energy source. The great thing about hydrogen is that it’s amazingly versatile in its implementation in many industries and as a base material for many products. That’s what makes it so interesting.

You just touched on it: as a port and logistics company, HHLA has to transport a lot of heavy loads, mostly containers. Does a power source like hydrogen have advantages over electric vehicles?
Yes, for many different reasons. First, we (meaning Germany and the European Union) have undertaken some tremendous tasks in terms of the energy transition. And this means that we want to do a tremendous amount of electrification: private vehicles, apartment heating ... We want to switch to green energy. But we all know that our power grids are already under extreme strain and we are constantly getting into situations where we cannot access the full power of renewable energies. This is where hydrogen has the advantage – it is a buffer for these energy sources. For companies in logistics, it can be available 24/7, 365 days a year for heavy-duty transport.

Could you take a moment to explain the difference between hydrogen power and fuel cell power?
Hydrogen can be used in many forms as an energy source for propulsion. In a fuel cell, hydrogen is converted into electricity, which then propels an electric motor. It’s also possible to burn hydrogen and use it in a normal combustion engine.

So hydrogen is used in the vehicle to generate electrical energy, which in turn can be used to drive four small electric motors, for instance. This means less energy is used, for example, to move a truck.
Exactly! There is then no friction loss due to gearboxes or long drivetrains, because the drive can be provided directly at the axle. This means that we combine the advantages of an electric drive with the advantages of a material energy source. Namely, fast refuelling and a relatively long range, regardless of the state of our power grids.

So, we are using the new fuel cell technology to decarbonise heavy-duty transports and container transports at our terminals.
At HHLA, we work in a lot of directions. For AGVs, our automated container transporters, we use electricity. But energy requirements for straddle carriers, for example, are significantly higher again than for other vehicles because they’re not just driving, they’re also raising and lowering containers. At the moment, it looks like hydrogen could be a very good alternative.

Now to the practicalities: are we already cooperating with manufacturers?
Yes, we have been working on this for a good year now and are connecting with quite a few manufacturers, not only of heavy-duty equipment. Together, we want to test the advantages in practical operation that we know or think we know from theoretical considerations. As I said, this is not just limited to vehicles, but even extends to Airbus. We are also talking to them about cooperation on training topics and trying to undertake something together to bring the new hydrogen economy forward.

Yes, the new hydrogen economy is, of course, more than just container transport. There is a lot more potential there for HHLA as well.
That’s exactly how we see it. HHLA’s core expertise is in handling and logistics. Therefore, at the beginning of our activities, we really asked ourselves the question: how can we at HHLA contribute to the energy transition with our skills? And we found a lot of answers! We have handling facilities. We have a network on which we transport loads and containers to the hinterland. And when I say hinterland, I mean centres in industrial regions where a huge demand for hydrogen will develop, in our opinion. This just makes it very wise for us to be involved in the field.

In other words, we can imagine establishing ourselves in the sector of hydrogen storage, handling and transport.
Exactly. We have a strong presence in the field. We have one of the biggest intermodal networks in Europe. We have numerous locations. We operate over 600 block trains that travel all across Europe every week. No one will be catching up to us quickly. We have a network of terminal locations in consumer regions, like Hamburg, Trieste and Tallinn. And we also have locations in producer regions, like Odessa. This all combines to form a great package.

Yes, this sounds like quite a lot of projects that HHLA is addressing at the same time. Is it also possible that a few of them ultimately may not end up being implemented?
If one of us had the ability to look into a crystal ball and see the future – and we’re talking about 2040 or 2050 here – then they would have it made. Of course, there will be many trials and tribulations on the way to this hydrogen economy. That is also why we have joined forces in a broad network with manufacturers and producers as well as government agencies, such as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, to be able to cushion the risks that arise from such a development.

That means we are also involved in sponsored projects. And right now, there is a huge range of funds in this field from a variety of sources.
I would like to give just one example here. We are part of the TransHyDE project, which is specifically about our core expertise, including the storage, handling and transport of hydrogen in carriers. And that’s something that we can contribute to.

There’s a lot of research to be done on the carrier substances, too. Which substances could these be, according to you? I have heard a lot about ammonia, but what else is there?
There is the organic hydrogen carrier known as LOHC. Then there’s ammonia, but also methanol. This isn’t a carrier substance, but liquid hydrogen is another possibility. While others get sweaty palms when thinking about handling these substances, we can say: we’re already doing it. And not just since yesterday, we’ve been doing it for decades.

Eventually, it could be possible to transport hydrogen in containers, just like other dangerous goods.
How to make that happen will be part of the research.

HHLA’s not the only one with a hydrogen strategy – Hamburg, Germany and the EU also do. So, it looks like Europe is pretty far ahead with this technology. Is that right?
Germany is a pioneer of hydrogen in Europe. We were one of the first countries to adopt a hydrogen strategy. Northern Germany – and with that I mean the five coastal states – also contributed with their own strategy. Minister Westhagemann from the office of economics played a huge part in this, because he really pushed for hydrogen in Hamburg, as well as across northern Germany. Following Germany, the rest of the countries in Europe have also climbed aboard. In practically every European country, we’ve got billions of euros in funding that will be invested in hydrogen. The European Commission also identified hydrogen as an essential energy source in their Green Deal. However, the Chinese are also very early to the game, with state management and strong commitment. Our American friends have also been active for decades in the area of hydrogen for other reasons. So we can’t say that we are in first place, but we’re definitely in a great starting position and it’s important for us to utilise this.

In Hamburg – as you just mentioned – Minister Westhagemann is promoting the topic of hydrogen with his personal commitment. There are a lot of established projects here – is a hydrogen cluster with international reach currently developing on the river Elbe?
I think it is, yes. Although it’s always better to make the assessment afterwards. But one thing is true: a great deal is developing in this area. Within the framework of a European scheme, the IPCEI projects, we have founded a hydrogen network that produces and applies hydrogen in aviation and logistics, right through to its transport. Here it becomes clear once again that in Hamburg you can do almost everything in a small area. That is one of the great advantages of this region. And in my opinion, this will also lead to the formation of a cluster here.

That could represent outstanding future prospects, also for the region around the port. Do you think that HHLA will play an essential role?
I think we have all the prerequisites to do so. I’ve already spoken about our network and our handling terminals. What I haven’t mentioned yet – and this is our biggest treasure – are the many wonderful and well qualified employees. These employees can work in hydrogen in the future, in the maintenance and technology area that is experiencing some turmoil at the moment. We can help employees get qualified to change from fossil fuels to fuel source technology and help the structural transformation at the Port through the implementation of this new technology. With this, we will help strengthen Hamburg’s position as an economic region and as a port city.