Nel and high water: the ultra-efficient electrolyser
June 28, 2017
Nel Hydrogen claims to have the most reliable and efficient electrolysers in the world, and it may soon be taking the fight to the hydrocarbons industry. Andrew Dykes reports from Notodden
Large-scale, affordable production of hydrogen is often thought of as a futuristic blueprint for the energy industry, but this belies the success Norway has had with the technology for the past century. Ninety years on, the latest incarnation of one of the founding partners in the country’s heavy water industry is still innovating.
Nel Hydrogen’s roots go back to 1927, to the wave of industrialisation which swept Norway after the formation of Norsk Hydro and the development of the country’s extensive hydropower resources. Hydro built an industry on a new, revolutionary process to create ammonia-based fertilisers by fixing nitrogen from the air – the Birkeland-Eyde process – and using power from hydro dams built at Svelgfossen and later Rjukan (the latter made famous through its heavy water manufacturing during World War 2).
That particular year saw the more efficient Haber-Bosch process perfected and adopted in Norway via a partnership with Germany’s IG Farben. Hydro would go on to build the world’s largest electrolyser plants in world, breaking its own records on multiple occasions from the 1930s to the 1950s. This pedigree still has influence on Nel today.
Having been part of the hydrogen business combined under the short-lived StatoilHydro merger, the company was then spun out, before investors launched a public offering in 2014. Nel now designs and delivers technology to produce, store and distribute hydrogen, with a particular focus on using renewable energy. Its business units cover electrolyser systems, refuelling stations for hydrogen vehicles and a range of other hydrogen infrastructure projects such as energy storage or gas-to-power.
The company’s VP of market development and public relations, Bjørn Simonsen, explained to InnovOil how the company’s history had helped maintain its position at the forefront of the technology.
Top of the range Nel markets its alkaline water electrolyser systems as “the most reliable and efficient in the world.” Electrolysers themselves are a choice between the large-scale A-Range and the compact C-Range, depending on the application and the amount of product required. These produce 99.9% pure hydrogen with cost efficiencies approaching natural gas-based methods.
“When they built these large electrolyser plants in the 1930s and 1950s, they wanted them to be as efficient as possible. They put a lot of effort and R&D into exactly that. What they developed was an active layer that we coat the electrodes with,” Simonsen explained. Yet unlike most innovations covered by InnovOil, the key to this superior performance is not a patented process. “The recipe for this has never been patented; it’s a trade secret and it has been with the company for several decades.”
That said, it does not seem to have affected the company’s performance. “No-one else has been able to beat that, even until now,” Simonsen said.
A-Range units are supplied in a number of sizes, from the A-150 which will produce 50-150 cubic metres hydrogen per hour, to the A-485, capable of 300-485 cubic metres. All use a 25% aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide electrolyte, produce hydrogen at atmospheric pressure and operate at 80°C. PLC control systems mean the systems work unattended, and can be linked to the existing plant controls.
Power consumption is where Nel technology excels. Regardless of size, the cell stack requires 3.8-4.4kWh of DC power per cubic metre of gas produced. 0.9 litres of feed water are required per cubic metre. Automation also means the systems are low-maintenance, the only expected work being cell stack replacement, which usually occurs after 8-10 years in operation.
All in all, Nel says this enables the A-Range to provide “the lowest operational costs available.” The C-Range works within largely the same parameters but with a compact design for reduced footprint – the smaller C-150 unit fits into two 12m x 2.9m x 3.6m containers, just bigger than an average 40ft (12.2-metre) shipping container, and has an outlet pressure of 30 or 200 bar, depending on customer configuration. Where A-Range units may be used for large-scale production, typical C-Range applications include hydrogen fuelling stations and the redistribution of hydrogen by industrial gas companies.
Highway to Nel Although typical customers may come from the heavy industry, plastics manufacturing and technology sectors, Nel is also gaining ground in territory once reserved for pure hydrocarbons. A new framework agreement signed in mid-June is evident of the momentum behind hydrogen as a greener option in supplementing gas supplies. As part of a contract worth over 3 billion kroner (US$350 million), Nel will supply electrolysers to French company H2V Product, in support of an industrial power-to-gas programme. H2V intends to inject hydrogen as a substitute for natural gas into its gas pipelines at its terminals in Northern France. The framework agreement outlines an initial procurement of a 100-MW hydrogen plant for completion between 2018 and 2020, and the supply of a further six plants during 2020-2025. With a total of 700 MW, Nel CEO Jon André Løkke called it the “largest industrial-scale power-to-gas project ever seen.”
Keen to capitalise on the growth in the sector, as well as completing the technology offering, Nel has also extended its reach through some high-profile acquisitions. Complementing the company’s history with alkaline atmospheric electrolysers, in February it took on US-based Proton On-Site, the largest proton-exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser supplier in the world. “By acquiring them we are now the largest player in the market,” Simonsen confirmed.
This will help to fuel North American expansion, where interest in infrastructure to support fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) is growing too, particularly on the West Coast. “We’re very excited to begin delivering hydrogen fuelling stations to Shell in California in the near future, and we are also looking at sites for establishing renewable hydrogen production to fuel the vehicles,” he explained.
Scaling up Greater interest, a healthy order book and new innovation are all driving prices down too. Most notably, Simonsen said that cost parity with electrolysed hydrogen was approaching parity with that of natural gas. For industrial consumers, that could be a major breakthrough.
“As we come to a lower cost on the unit, and which we have demonstrated recently, we are gradually becoming more and more competitive with steam methane reforming (SMR) on a capex level. With the decrease on electricity prices – also renewable – we see that in some regions we can compete with SMR today without subsidies,” he said. Economies of scale are still crucial – competition relies on large plants – but the trend is undeniable. “For the time being a large-scale plant of 200-400 MW [in] scale, we estimate a capex level of US$450 per kW. This at least will compete with medium-scale reformers.” A report from the US’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimated the 2020 costs of an SMR plant at around US$7,300 per kg of H2 production per day, based on a total plant capacity of 100 kg per day. Economies of scale bring this down even further, but support Simonsen’s assertion that Nel can more than compete in the mid-scale range. This is pushing a new debate in Europe with refiners and other users, especially those who are keen to reduce their carbon footprint. “It’s a renewable benefit that we can bring primarily. For refiners, it can potentially lower the carbon footprint of the fuels,” he explained. “You have two options to make the fuel cleaner: you can mix biofuels at the end of the process or you can switch fossil-based hydrogen with renewable hydrogen within the process itself. That’s what we will be proposing to refineries. We are in dialogue with several refineries in Europe and there are also ongoing processes in the EU on how to better integrate renewable hydrogen into regulations for renewable fuel policy.”
SMR remains the dominant mode of hydrogen production for now, but it is a market ripe for disruption. The next few years could see big changes afoot as supply and consumption patterns change. That much of that momentum could be driven by a renewable technology pioneered almost a century ago should be a great credit to its Norwegian innovators.