Elsevier, energy: Italy back on hydrogen and green batteries

China at the forefront of research on Hydrogen and Storage, while for Italy they are not yet a national priority. Europe distant from a common energy policy. This, in summary, is what emerges from theanalysis by Elsevier, one of the most important scientific publishers in the world, with more than 3,000 academic journals in every field, which analyzed the worldwide production of research on the topic in the last 5 years, from 2017 to 2021. Three in particular are the areas taken into consideration by the analysis: renewable energy storage, hydrogen research and carbon capture. “As we will see, in Italy research on these new areas of renewable energy suffers from the well-known problems that characterize research in our country in general: few funds and limited systemic thinking capable of connecting research and industrial development”he comments Claudio Colaiacomo, Vice President for Academic Relations of Elsevier.

Three technologies to look to the future

In recent years, great strides have been made in the field of renewable energies and, especially compared to wind and solar energy, the costs have fallen significantly. But before we can fully or nearly replace fossil fuels, several challenges remain. The question of energy storage, from the efficiency of portable batteries to the integration of storage systems in the “grid”. The alternative energy sources, of which hydrogen is currently the only candidate, being the only clean fuel available, with the added advantage of being able to function as an energy storage system as well. Finally, the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, the “Carbon Capture”: it is urgent, to avoid the “tipping point” or point of no return, as a damage strategy it is unthinkable to eliminate fossil fuels 100%. This is why carbon offsetting is the optimal solution, counteracting global warming and at the same time contributing to the achievement of net zero emissions globally, even before obtaining independence from non-renewable sources. These are the three most relevant technologies in the energy field today – says Colaiacomo – e choosing to enhance one line of research rather than another has an important impact on our future: storage and hydrogen offer the hope of meeting future needs, together with energy independence and power. Carbon offsetting responds to the urgency of preserving the planet for future generations”. Each country, as Elsevier’s research shows, takes a different approach.

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Renewable energy storage

The energy storage market is expected to attract more $600 million by 2040: “When we have 20% of peak demand available in storage, we will be able to run an all-renewable system globally”recalls Colaiacomo, “and that is why analyzing the policies and incentives of different governments plays an important role in this regard”.

What are the trends? Analyzing the scientific production of the last 5 years, we see that Italy is in 8th place in the world, but in 3rd place in Europe after UK and Germany. France, on the other hand, is in 13th place in the world and 5th in Europe, a positioning that could be indicative of a research on renewables directed towards other fronts, such as nuclear power.

It then hits the role of China: this, in fact, not only leads the ranking, but with over 35 thousand scientific publications far ahead of the other countries. The United States, in fact, takes second place with just over 11,000 publications. But it’s not all about the “Chinese model”: China is in fact the country that collaborates least with others. “If the strong boost in terms of research were to directly correspond to an acceleration in China in terms of storage of renewables, this could have effects from a geopolitical point of view – explains Colaiacomo – Let’s not forget that China represents an alternative market for Russia and that if China were to truly emancipate itself from Russian imports, this would have a heavy repercussion”.

China is also ahead in terms of patents, with 62,000 patents against 16,700 in Europe: the country’s strategy is evidently that of working in the long term by implementing new technologies. And it’s not accidental that it is the automotive industry is one of the fields of greatest activity for patents: considering that the switch to electric cars will have to be completed by 2050, this determination by China, for now visible in the research field, could have important effects on future balances.

As far as Italy is concerned, however, at fund level, research on storage behaves like the research sector in general, showing the same endemic inability to attract capital; in this context, the United Kingdom, Germany and France are the most virtuous countries, while Italy closes the ranking. Worse than our country, only Poland and Ireland. It is interesting to examine the research institutes active on the subject: in Italy the CNR leads, an indication that suggests a certain interest at a national level.

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Hydrogen can be used as fuel instead of petrol or gas, with only the emission of water vapour: a strategic resource with a view to decarbonisation. Furthermore, hydrogen can also be used forenergy storage. In this segment, the challenge is that of efficient and low-cost production.

Here too we see China winning, with a strong gap over other countries in terms of production over the 5 years: almost 6,000 research projects against 2,000 in the United States, which follows in second place. Italy is in 12th place with just 565 publications, while Germany leads in Europe. Of note is Russia, which with 600 research programs ranks 10th and appears in the ranking with 217 patents. “Russia – explain from Elsevier – rarely appears in this kind of rankings. His presence, therefore, suggests a positioning of the country on the issue of long-term renewables, which is particularly interesting in this historical moment”. And Europe? “The great differences in positioning between the EU countries – Germany in 4th place, France in 9th, Italy in 12th and Spain in 15th – suggest that Europe lacks a common energy policy”. On patents, even in this segment, China is the master, demonstrating good coordination between energy and industrial policies.

carbon capture

Academic research in the carbon capture segment shows a smaller gap from China, primarily attributable to the country’s size. The RAI (Relative Activity Index)[1] in fact proves that research on Carbon Capture which instead is of “high priority” in Europe: a very small differential is detected between China and European countries such as Great Britain, Germany or Italy.

However, it should be noted that this segment is closely linked to industry, with rates of collaboration between research institutions and industries higher than in other sectors. A constant that also applies to Italy which, if in the other two areas taken into consideration expresses a 6% partnership, here it reaches 10%. And this also emerges by looking at which institutions produce the most research on the subject: in fact, in the lead we find the Politecnico di Milano, a pole that has always been linked to production realities, which takes the lead from the CNR.

Scientific research and geopolitical balances

With RAI (Relative Activity Index) refers to the share of publications on a certain topic by a given entity compared to the global share on the topic and is an excellent indicator of the research priorities of each organization or country. For example, Chinese research focuses heavily on storage and hydrogen, but with respect to carbon capture it shows less interest than the USA and the EU. So what is the picture drawn by Elsevier around these three cornerstones? How to interpret the numbers? “RAI comes to our aid – says Colaiacomo – showing us which priority each country is focusing on: the relative volume of Scholarly Output (scientific publications) in fact allows us to compare small countries to larger ones, contextualizing the data”. As far as energy storage is concerned, China is the leading country also in terms of the priority granted, the highest of all. As far as the hydrogen segment is concerned, however, we find a RAI similar to that of South Korea: the two countries are clearly ahead of all the others. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, shares the podium with South Korea, albeit surpassing it, in terms of Carbon Capture. Carbon sequestration is at the top of the priorities, as well as for the United Kingdom, for European countries – such as Germany, Spain, Italy and France – and for the United States, areas of the world with a marked public and institutional sensitivity towards the issues of climate change and the energy crisis. Conversely, it is the least priority for Russia, China and South Korea, and second for Japan. It is clear that the map drawn in this way outlines a precise geopolitical picture, with differently distributed interests. “Once again research can be an important signal for reading the long and medium-term strategies of countries in a certain area – concludes Colaiacomo – Cross-referencing data on scientific publications, on the ability to connect research and industry and on how funds are allocated, can provide important information for reading the present and anticipating the future”.

Elsevier, energy: Italy back on hydrogen and green batteries – Rinnovabili.it