Aerospace and its contribution to the development of hydrogen applications

Presentation given at a session of the economic committee of Baden-Württemberg’s state parliament (25 November 2020)

In autumn 2020, the German Aerospace Center asked me to give members of the economic committee of Baden-Württemberg’s state parliament an understanding of the connection between aerospace and the hydrogen economy. I was more than happy to do so, given that Fichtner’s expertise and, by extension, its strong position in the hydrogen sector are largely down to the work we have done for the aerospace industry. I am certain that aerospace engineering can also provide great added value to companies from other sectors as they pursue their own developments with hydrogen. So I would like to share these thoughts not only with a select few, but also with others who might be interested. In this short article, I have therefore summarized the content of the presentation given on 25 November 2020 to the members of the state parliament.

Why do I think that we at Fichtner can say something about how aerospace can help the hydrogen economy on the ground? Because aerospace has also been a great help to us in gaining a foothold in this emerging market. And I am convinced that it can also help many other companies in Baden-Württemberg and Germany, thus giving our country a key competitive advantage.

Our history in the hydrogen sector

Hydrogen has been touted as the energy source of the future since the time of Jules Verne. Our history with hydrogen is not quite that long, but it does stretch back a good 30 years. It all began with a project that would nowadays be referred to as “power-to-gas”, “integrated energy” and “innovative”. In around 1990, Fichtner worked on a project called “Solar Hydrogen Bavaria”, which produced hydrogen from solar PV power by means of alkaline electrolysis and tested various ways of storing hydrogen along with various tank concepts. Unfortunately, the energy sector lost sight of hydrogen again in the early 90s.

We, however, had the great fortune of acquiring the German Aerospace Center (DLR) as a client. Rocket engines are tested at the DLR site in Lampoldshausen, with hydrogen being the supplier of energy for most of those engines. For the past three decades, we have been planning testbeds there for rocket engines and site infrastructure, which has enabled us to gain extensive, valuable experience with hydrogen plants. Among other things, this includes handling hydrogen under a wide variety of operating conditions: cryogenic, high pressure, low pressure, extreme purity requirements – everything that is today seen as posing challenges in hydrogen plants are things that we have been learning about and applying for almost 30 years in the aerospace industry.

In light of greatly reduced costs for generating renewable power and the need to decarbonize our economy, the energy sector, which we ourselves operate in, rediscovered hydrogen a few years back. With the practical experience we have gained in hydrogen plants over many years in the aerospace industry, we are convinced that we can offer added value and thus make a valuable contribution to the development of the hydrogen economy. So we approached clients and companies who, in our view, could use support in the field of hydrogen and presented our relevant expertise to them. The response has been and continues to be fantastic, as the people we have spoken to consider our experience and expertise to be unique as well as a source of great added value. With this competitive advantage, we have managed to grow strongly in recent years. Our team grew from four to eleven employees within just one and a half years. We have worked on projects from Chile to Australia, ranging from policy consulting to general planning of commercial power-to-gas plants. Our experience from the aerospace industry was in many cases a door opener and a guarantee of success.

Added value for the hydrogen economy

So are we at Fichtner just an exception, or can that which has been such a valuable experience for us in aerospace also provide added value for other companies? To answer this, it is important to ask what the challenges are for companies that are new to hydrogen:

  • High pressure: Vehicle tanks for fuel cell vehicles are operated at 700 bar.
  • Flammability and explosiveness: Hydrogen forms explosive atmospheres very easily.
  • High purity requirements: Impurities absolutely must be avoided in fuel cells, so as not to damage them.
  • Cryogenic temperatures: Hydrogen is stored in liquid form at -253°C in some plants and vehicles.
  • Small molecule: Hydrogen places high demands on the leak-tightness of systems.

Many companies, e.g. in the automotive and supplier industry, are working on these challenges. And many of them speak to us about it. The aerospace industry has decades of experience with such requirements and knows how to deal with them. That is why I am certain that the knowledge acquired in aerospace engineering is so valuable, not only for us but also for other companies dealing with hydrogen.

I am therefore very happy that DLR is developing a technical center at its Lampoldshausen site, where research and development can be conducted for companies in the hydrogen sector and where the transfer of knowledge from aerospace to ground-based operations will be actively advanced. In light of this, I am convinced that the aerospace industry with the knowledge it possesses has a lot to offer our region as a center of commerce and industry when it comes to hydrogen.