Hydrogen occupies a central position to contribute to national environmental objectives and to a safer and more reliable production of energy, playing an important role in the energy transition process and in the decarbonisation of the productive and economic system. There are several objectives that European and national energy agendas and policies set to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The European Union in its recent strategies indicates hydrogen as one of the enabling factors to achieve the decarbonization of the European energy system, identifying among the priorities, the need to support demand in those sectors where the direct use of electricity is difficult to implement. At the end of 2021, the Ministry of Economic Development (MiSE) issued the “National Hydrogen Strategy – Preliminary Guidelines” which defines the application sectors in which hydrogen can become progressively competitive both in the short and long term.

Figure 1 – Overall view of the Hydrogen Demo Valley to be realized at C.R. Casaccia, ENEA

In this context, research and innovation represent key elements to achieve a “hydrogen economy” in support of the energy transition objectives outlined by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR). Of note are the initiatives IPCEI hydrogen and the AdP Mission Innovation – the latter signed between the Ministry of Ecological Transition (MiTE) and ENEA – which provide, with different objectives and goals, actions and projects for research, innovation, testing and demonstration of hydrogen value chain technologies. Priority is given to the impact of PNRR with 3.6 billion euros of investment provided in the measure M2C2 “Energy Transition and Sustainable Mobility” which identifies the sectors for the promotion of production, transport, distribution and end uses of hydrogen.

Several international projects on hydrogen, more than 250 funded by FCH-JU under the 7th Framework Programme and the Horizon 2020 Programme, ongoing or already completed, have allowed to research, test and validate, even in real environments, individual technologies and system solutions, as well as to create an extensive hydrogen market ranging from the spread of uses in the thermal sector to mobility and industry, also addressing cross-cutting issues and aspects such as standardization, regulation and certification.

In parallel to these initiatives, the so-called Hydrogen Valleys are being set up in several European countries, i.e. real integrated, localized and large-scale “ecosystems” based on hydrogen as a common energy vector. These are initiatives co-financed by the European Commission and driven mainly by the industrial sector, driven by the production of green hydrogen, i.e. from electrolysis powered by renewable sources. Among these we can mention: the Northern Netherlands Hydrogen Valley initiative, with the development of a 20 MW electrolyzer and the production of methanol; the Rhine-Neckar project in Germany, mainly dedicated to mobility; the H21/Leeds project in the UK, where the aim is to decarbonize the natural gas network by substituting increasing percentages of hydrogen for methane to power both domestic and industrial users; the H4Heat project in the UK, which focuses on the economic feasibility and safety associated with the use of natural gas/hydrogen blends to replace natural gas.

At present in Italy a multifunctional demonstrator of a hydrogen ecosystem of significant size and integrated with real users is not yet available. Near Bolzano is in operation the only hydrogen refueling station open to the public on the national territory (for vehicles at 350 and 700 bar) that allows to “feed” a fleet of about 20 buses and 15 cars. Near Capo d’Orlando (Sicily) there is a small-scale infrastructure, managed by the National Research Council (CNR), for green mobility with hydrogen produced by photovoltaics, used to power a minibus and a series of hydrogen-powered pedal-assisted bicycles.

At industrial level, SNAM has carried out an experimental test campaign near Contursi Terme (Salerno) on the use of hydrogen mixed with natural gas (with hydrogen concentrations up to 10%vol), transported through a section of commercial pipeline at the service of two users of industrial thermal generation. In Troia (FG), as part of the INGRID and STORE&GO projects, the operation of a pilot plant for the production of hydrogen from electrolysis (1MWe) has been tested and verified, with the storage of hydrogen in gaseous form and in metal hydrides, used in refueling stations for vehicles and fuel cells. At the same site, also with the help of a system of direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air, a system for the production of synthetic methane and liquefaction of the gas produced has been realized and tested.

At the national level, on research issues, ENEA, CNR and RSE collaborate on the development of new technologies related to the hydrogen supply chain, with particular reference to Power to Gas applications, as part of the Three-Year Research Plan 2019-2021 (PTR) financed with funds from the “Research on the Electric System” (RdS) under the Program Agreement funded by MiTE (former MiSE). The new Three-Year Research Plan 2022-2024, currently being prepared, provides for an integrated hydrogen project with the participation of ENEA, CNR and RSE for research and development activities in the entire value chain.

As part of the AdP Mission Innovation, signed between ENEA and MiTE, ENEA has proposed the creation of a hydrogen Demo Valley, at its C.R. Casaccia, which was funded by MiTE with an endowment of about 14 million euros.