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Hydrogen and lithium-ion: Europe’s key to a green recovery

The promise of hydrogen as the energy source of the future has long been deliberated by manufacturers, climate professionals, and political figures. These discussions have intensified following the European Commission’s economic recovery package, which features a focus on kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe. Nikolaos Tsiouvaras, R&D director at Systems Sunlight S.A., a Greek manufacturer of industrial and advanced technology batteries for the energy storage industry, explores storage in Europe.

In line with the European Green Deal, the ‘Next Generation EU’ package recognizes hydrogen for its ability to bolster the long-term objectives of the European Union and the essential role it can play in achieving climate neutrality.

Economies across the world have begun engaging with hydrogen. Many governments have created generous subsidies to pursue hydrogen as a way of diversifying their energy sources.

Still, lithium-ion remains the dominant energy storage technology for the wider industrial sector and is expected to dominate the markets. Investments from EU’s Green Stimulus through the IPCEI Initiative to support innovations to battery value chain underline how important lithium-ion technologies will become. The project supports the development of innovative and sustainable technologies for lithium-ion batteries (liquid electrolyte and solid-state) that last longer, have shorter charging times, are safer, and more environmentally-friendly than those currently available. Innovation will also specifically aim at improving environmental sustainability across all segments of the battery value chain. It aims to reduce the CO2 footprint and the waste generated along with the different production processes as well as develop environmentally friendly and sustainable dismantling, recycling, and refining in line with circular economy principles.

Lithium is leading the innovations

The global lithium-ion battery market has experienced a period of exponential growth in recent years and Data Bridge Market Research expects the lithium-ion EV market to continue growing at an annual rate of 15.70% in the forecast period of 2020 to 2027. The growth of the market is attributed to the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries in a number of applications (electric vehicles, robots for warehouse, e-marine & e-transports), which provide lower maintenance requirements, longevity, and are a more sustainable solution in comparison to fuel.

For smaller vehicles, in particular, for the motive power industry, the technological developments of lithium-ion mean that repair and maintenance efforts are considerably reduced.  In most cases, maintenance is not necessary at all, equating to an important reduction in the annual total cost of ownership compared to other technologies providing significant savings on labor costs of maintenance staff. They also notably reduce idle time through speed of charging and the advantages brought about by opportunity charging – which allows a battery to be charged several times during a work-cycle with no effect on battery service life. This is particularly important for industries that rely on efficiency, such as logistics.

Smart lithium-ion batteries, such as System Sunlight’s Li.ON force range used in forklift trucks and other industrial applications allow for a full charge in less than 90 minutes. This enables three-shift operations while avoiding the need to change the battery in the middle of the working day – a huge advantage for industrial machinery. The technology uses lithium-iron-phosphate, a safer form of lithium that can last for approximately 4,500 charging cycles, depending on the user profile. Most notably, this extended longevity equates to considerable savings down the line and a higher return on investment despite the initial purchase cost.

The future of battery technology

Whilst lithium is likely to remain the dominant technology for the motive power industry for the next 20-30 years, the future for hydrogen remains bright, especially for heavyweight vehicles. High-energy density allows it to offer a greater range while occupying smaller volumes. For heavy-duty applications such as vans, trucks, trains, ships, and aircrafts, hydrogen-powered fuel cells present an interesting opportunity.  Due to high production costs, it is not currently an economically viable solution, but we see costs coming down each year.

Accordingly, global spending on hydrogen energy research, development, and demonstration has risen significantly in the past years. System Sunlight’s new research and development center will focus on new technologies, such as solid-state lithium, but its main focus will be on hydrogen. We are eager to explore hydrogen but only for the specialist applications necessary for the motor power industry, where lithium and lead-acid remain the best technology solution for the far majority of customers’ needs.