PEi’s Pamela Largue spoke to Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, Chairman of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI), about how the organisation is pushing the boundaries of innovation in Europe and what impact that could have on the burgeoning hydrogen market around the world.
What is JEDI all about and how are you driving innovation in Europe, especially in the energy sector?
The goal of JEDI is to be the European version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US: an initiative for disruptive innovation, for Europeans and democracies to be leaders in the fields of science and disruptive technologies. Rather than focusing on technology for the sake of technology, we aim to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges in the environment, healthcare, digital, education and space fields through innovation.
We are driving innovation by organising Grand Challenges to push the boundaries of science. These Grand Challenges focus on the frontiers and bottlenecks that need to be overcome to have a game changing impact on our societies. Environment, energy and climate change represent a large part of our efforts. We plan to launch Grand Challenges on water filtering, carbon capture, alternatives to pesticides, batteries without toxic materials future energy storage, datacentres with a 10x lower energy consumption, and many more.
In the other fields, we’ve just done a major Grand Challenge to disrupt the traditional pre-clinical drug discovery process ” a global success with 130 teams from the best institutions in the world participating, an astounding 54 billion molecules scanned to ultra-fast-track the discovery of a treatment against COVID -19 ” a track we absolutely need on top of the vaccines.
Tell us more about the Hydrogen Grand Challenge
Let us be clear: it is all about Green Hydrogen ” that’s to say, hydrogen produced without carbon emissions. Today, everyone can produce hydrogen without many technical difficulties, but the elephant in the room is to produce green hydrogen that is cost-competitive and make hydrogen truly a contributor to lower carbon emissions. The cost of green hydrogen is, as of today, a major hindrance, which explains why only 5% (and that is an optimistic figure) of the hydrogen produced today is through renewable energies. The rest of it comes either from fossil energy (grey hydrogen) or nuclear plants (blue hydrogen).
If we want Europe to reach its targets (cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 and being climate neutral by 2050) we must use every tool at our disposal ” and green hydrogen is a critical one. It is now evident a linear approach and incremental improvements will not be up to this task. Major breakthroughs are therefore needed. To break these barriers, we are the first ones in Europe to implement a successful DARPA-inspired method: we organise an open competition with clear and ultra-ambitious objectives that have to be reached by one of the participating teams, coming from industry, startups or academia.
There is a big financial reward ” but we may also select a short list that we further encourage along the way. We only award the big prize if the metrics are reached. Our approach is highly ambitious, but simple, getting the best teams to work on a clear but very challenging problem. We remove all bureaucratic constraints that often plague traditional research funding, deliver practical infrastructure and even partial funding along the way, while being the most demanding in terms of scientific, technological and deadline results though cooperation and competition.
This is more or less the opposite of what you see in traditional research programmes. This is why we are complementary to all existing efforts, and also why there is so much enthusiasm in the technology and scientific field about JEDI Grand Challenges. From Nobel prize winners who take part in our scientific committees to technology founders, CEOs of large technology firms or heads of major research labs ” our only criteria are excellence, disruptive approaches and speed.
Another key point is that we believe we need to support the best in their research and ensure that the breakthroughs don’t remain on the lab’s shelves but become products and industries. This is why the intellectual Property remains the property of the winning teams. Ultimately, teams compete both for the prize and the prestige associated with being the winner of a JEDI Grand Challenge.
The Green Hydrogen Challenge is actually composed of four distinct Challenges that are complementary and should trigger the interest of the best teams. They are: massively decreasing the cost of producing green hydrogen; massively decreasing the cost of storing hydrogen; producing green hydrogen without toxic or rare materials; and direct hydrogen propulsion of an unmanned aerial vehicle over a certain distance.
Soon, we will disclose the precise metrics of success that we aim to achieve for each of these four challenges, as well as the private and public strategic partners that we are currently selecting. These selected partners will be deeply involved in both crafting and supporting these breakthrough challenges that could change the name of the game in the energy sector.
What role do you see hydrogen playing in our move to net zero?
Hydrogen can be the ‘next big thing’, both the energy of tomorrow that will bring a major contribution to carbon emissions reduction, as well as a gamechanger in terms of energy storage in relation to the ramp-up of renewables in the mix. Policymakers, particularly in Europe, are rightly aware of that. As previously mentioned, the EU has ambitious climate targets and we will only achieve if we are highly ambitious in terms of R&D!
Let’s also be optimistic: green hydrogen already exists. Some technologies are already well-known by business and scientists, but we need to find ways to either radically optimise them or to invent totally new approaches.
We are therefore not necessarily talking about reinventing the wheel, but about massively speeding up and scaling up research and technologies that haven’t yet been pushed or matured enough. The bottleneck isn’t caused by trying to make green hydrogen ‘greener’, but is rather about accelerating or inventing these technologies ” to derisk them, so that after the Grand Challenge is complete, they can be adopted by the private sector and industrialised. This is the core role of JEDI, to run complementary to public incentives and to create scale.
How long do you think it will take to develop the global hydrogen supply chain we need to get the sector up and running?
Since hydrogen has been studied for decades now, and acceleration is spurred on by consciousness of the climate emergency, the supply chain is already moving forward quickly and many global players are actively working to build a significant ecosystem. For this very reason, we, as Europeans, must seize this opportunity and this turning point. I expect to see many innovations and breakthroughs happening in the next five years, before benefitting from a massive ‘scaling-up’ phase for the next 10 years. Of course, it’s a cycle: the more you innovate, the more scaling accelerates. However, the key question is whether or not a European hydrogen supply chain can alongside a global one. Japan and South Korea have already invested in green hydrogen since 2016 and Canada has prominent hydrogen players too.
Thankfully, all over Europe, local, national and European initiatives are being established. We welcome the work of the EU Commission, the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, and national strategies (in France and in Germany, most notably), private-backed projects (North H2 in the Netherlands), private-public associations (Hydrogen Europe, Hydrogen Europe Research, World Hydrogen Council). Of course JEDI is deeply connected to them.
Our approach is complementary to these research programmes and hydrogen projects. However, we focus on the hard technology frontiers, and on hard problems to crack, ensuring a game changing impact in the next five years, not the next 30 years. While national research programmes will probably look at reducing costs for hydrogen production by 10-20%, we at JEDI are talking about 60-70%. I’m a strong believer in hydrogen and I know that those two goals are needed.
Any final comments?
In order to slash green hydrogen production costs by a factor of three, to develop membranes without rare metals, to make hydrogen-powered aviation competitive and safe, we will need to have the best of the best among innovators and scientists. We will also need strategic partners, large corporates, foundations and public administration who wish to go beyond the speeches and embark on real action. Through these challenges, they will get to have access to the best teams working on hydrogen, energy and storage technologies, exploring the frontiers of technologies that will allow us to achieve our climate goals and economic resilience.
As a final word: Our deep conviction is that for all the global challenges that humanity is facing, be it climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic, it is all about our capacity to take calculated and bold risks, and to act swiftly.
Speed and boldness are of the essence to put us back in the driving seat when designing our best future and being ahead of the curve ” be it for vaccines, treatments or climate. Public administration, the private sector but also new forms of partnerships building on the technology ecosystem and civil society ” like JEDI ” all have their role to play.