The H2FUTURE project will examine the feasibility of using PEM electrolysis to generate hydrogen on an industrial scale. This is now common knowledge, but what only a few people know are the names at voestalpine behind the illustrious-sounding H2FUTURE project.
The name H2FUTURE has already become a byword. It is both an EU Commission flagship project and a promising research venture being undertaken by voestalpine in Linz, together with the five project partners Siemens, VERBUND, Austrian Power Grid, K1-MET, and ECN part of TNO. The 12 masterminds making up the core H2FUTURE project team in Linz are drawn from a wide variety of specialisms.
But they all have one thing in common: they are all passionate about the topic, and share a certain vision, because the technology that the project team is working with today will only be decisive for energy intensive industry–and the steel industry in particular–in ten or 15 years’ time, at the earliest.
"The work on H2FUTURE is extremely exciting–this project is leading the company to a fork in the road, if you will. Our job is to prepare the technological groundwork for future decisions. We are researching into future pathways in steel production; what’s possible, and what isn’t. This in itself is a significant contribution."
Behind the scenes
There is now significant interest in the project. “There’s hardly an international conference or publication on the subject of decarbonization or the steel industry that doesn’t include the names H2FUTURE and voestalpine,” reports Project Manager Hermann Wolfmeir. As an innovative, forward-looking group, the project’s relevance to voestalpine is correspondingly great. Although there is some media activity, the project team is concentrating the majority of its efforts behind the scenes. Even visionary research projects need to be run efficiently. Plus the project members are all still required to do their everyday jobs at voestalpine.
"H2FUTURE places voestalpine in the international spotlight. It’s an honor, but it can also be stressful. There are a diverse range of expectations within the group, amongst the project partners, and in the media. It is important for us in the team not to be swayed by this, and to focus on advancing the project. We are managing this well."
A culture of open communication
The team was established three years ago, and officially started work in January 2017. “Our project team encompasses the broadest possible range of expertise in the fields of energy supply, electrolysis, and integrating the technology into voestalpine’s energy and utilities system,” explains Project Manager Thomas Bürgler. It was several years before the start of the project that he and Hermann Wolfmeir started to consider how hydrogen could be used in steel manufacturing. Today the project team meets once a week to go through all the individual topics together. “When it comes to hydrogen, there’s a lot we have to get to grips with. Although we may not always be in agreement, we cultivate a culture of open communication, and this is extremely fruitful,” says Hermann Wolfmeir.
"This is a highly complex project of impressive dimensions. We have a budget of EUR 18 million, and funding of EUR 12 million, making it one of the largest projects for voestalpine within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research program. In a research project of this scale the figures and results naturally have to add up, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor within the project team."
"I find it very interesting to be working together with a research department again after such a long time. Production projects are somewhat different; they’re purely focused on availability, and the timetable is usually much tighter."
"Together we are driving H2FUTURE forward. We are consistently doing our homework on a step-by-step basis, both at voestalpine and in cooperation with the project partners. But a couple of major questions which we probably won’t be able to answer within the project framework will remain: Where do we source the huge quantities of green electricity which we will need in future? And, will this energy be affordable?"
"Drawing up the initial contracts, and negotiations with the contract partners, were certainly a challenge. Everyone had their own interests to protect, but were prepared to create the legal basis for positive cooperation. This is the environment in which we are currently operating."
"I’ve been fascinated by hydrogen since my youth. In the 1980s BMW wanted to construct a hydrogen vehicle–I applied to work there, but nothing became of it. Now, in the later stage of my career, I’m again focused on the subject of hydrogen, here at voestalpine. The project team works on a wide variety of topics: research, investment, energy supply, regulations, funding, etc., and that’s fascinating."
"There is significant public interest in our project. In private, I’m constantly asked if I know what voestalpine is researching into in H2FUTURE. It makes me very proud to say that I know, and that I’m also involved in the project. One challenge is certainly getting the power plant employees who will look after the facility interested in this uncharted technological territory."
"I come from K1-MET where I’m principally dealing with technologies to reduce CO2 emissions in steel production. What I value about the H2FUTURE team is the interdepartmental cooperation–this gives me valuable insights into operational issues and challenges, and this is most enriching."
"My task is to evaluate the various processes for producing hydrogen, and their use in other industrial processes. I’m learning an awful lot about the potential that hydrogen has to offer in future."
"PEM electrolysis is a new technology, meaning that there is plenty to learn in terms of the plant and processes. Moreover, the regulations differ between Austria and Germany where our industrial partner Siemens constructed its first plants. But the team is extremely energetic and dynamic, and we’re all pulling in the same direction."
"I come from Canada and H2FUTURE is my first project in Austria. I’m learning a lot here, both about the technology, and the local culture. Everyone in the team is extremely positive, and they all understand their jobs. What I really like is that when a colleague says something will be done, then it gets done, and you don’t need to chase it up."
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Our path to a green future
We are upping the pace of emissions reduction. greentec steel from voestalpine is Austria’s largest climate protection program. Starting in 2027, this program will reduce Austria’s annual CO2 emissions by almost 5%. 2024 marks the start of the partial shift from the blast furnace to the electric arc furnace (EAF) route—once unresolved funding issues in Austria are clarified.