The Growing Role of Universities in Supporting the Hydrogen Economy
The role universities across the UK can play in building and securing a hydrogen economy is often understated. Some fundamental research and partnerships between universities and the private sector enable the innovation required to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve net zero. 

2022 was a successful year for many universities in terms of feeding research into the pipeline of projects and implementing findings to support innovation. Teeside and Durham University were particularly successful after embarking on an £11m project in the Tees Valley. 

With funding to be spread over the next four years, researchers from both universities will find solutions to the biggest challenges facing Teeside and is part of the ‘Collaboration in Research’ group.  

Partly funded by the RED Fund and industrial partners, private sector bodies are slowly starting to understand the benefits of working with industry leading research to tackle challenges such as storage, distribution and production.  

 Universities can Provide Innovation for the Future

The Tees Valley is responsible for almost 50% of the UK’s hydrogen production, and universities will be at the heart of innovation in this sector. As a future economic growth driver, universities in these up-and-coming economic heartlands must be included in every step. 

Ensuring policy is aligned with the ideology of the private sector, the project will also investigate regulatory barriers involved in expanding the hydrogen sector. 

The buzz around the involvement of university researchers to cover different aspects of the hydrogen economy isn’t subject to the North East of England, with universities in the West Midlands and North West also getting behind the energy transition. 

Public and Private Funding needed to Unlock Barriers

For example, the University of Birmingham has focused on the transport sector and how commercial fleets can enhance passenger experiences through cars, rail, aviation and maritime. 

From basic research on fuel cells to more complex work on integrating green energy systems into existing transport vehicles, the University of Birmingham is road-testing the sustainable production, storage and commercial application of hydrogen and other sustainable energy sources.

Headed by Professor Robert Steinberger-Wilckens, the nationally- and internationally-acclaimed CHFCR is part of the £ 6.5 million Advantage West Midlands Science City initiative. 

It was recently awarded £5.5m to create and run a doctoral training centre in hydrogen, fuel cells and their applications – the first of its kind in the UK – in 2008; they are currently looking at extending these activities to 2022.

Echoing the essential aspect of aligning the private sector with universities, the University of Manchester focuses on a whole system approach to their research, including production and delivery, storage, cross-cutting issues and hydrogen safety. 

Different Avenues of Research Paints a Clearer Picture for Net Zero

Regarding production and delivery, the University of Manchester is the co-host EPSRC Supergen bioenergy hub with solid links to biochemical H2 production. It is part of the hydrogen and fuel cells SUPERGEN which evaluates and demonstrates the role of hydrogen and fuel cells in the energy landscape.

Many of the production methods for hydrogen require new energy materials. They have dedicated teams in the Department of Materials, The Henry Royce Institute, UoM@Harwell and bp-ICAM developing catalysts, membranes, plasmas and nanomaterials.

Additionally, The University of Manchester already has substantial expertise in the subsurface spanning chemical, mechanical and microbiological characterisation, and this expertise is being harnessed to understand underground hydrogen storage systems. Researchers are also characterising hydrogen storage materials by looking at metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and porous materials which can store hydrogen.

The Thomas Ashton Institute is a strategic partnership between The University of Manchester and the Health and Safety Executive looking at the safe operation, handling and use of hydrogen.

Utilising the knowledge and resources universities can offer the sector will be one of the contributing factors to how quickly the UK can build a hydrogen economy and become a world-leading exporter.