Together with imec, VITO will be working in the coming years to develop a demonstration version of an electrolysis platform that is capable of producing green hydrogen cheaply and efficiently. Ideally, this hydrogen will soon be produced en masse in wind farms and solar farms outside Europe.
Hydrogen can be produced by splitting water using electricity from renewable sources. Green hydrogen of this type has been generating interest as a carrier of renewable energy for decades. Its popularity has witnessed ups and downs, of which the ‘hype’ surrounding hydrogen fuel cell technology at the beginning of this century forms just one example.
The insights gained during the development of fuel cells have convinced energy experts that first generating hydrogen using green electricity and then (at some other time and possibly in some other place) converting it back into green electricity again is not worth the effort. ‘At the moment, the best choice seems to be to electrify everything that can be electrified – especially cars – using batteries,’ says Jan Vaes of VITO. This is also because domestic production of green hydrogen, even if it is strongly promoted, would never be sufficient to meet the demand that already exists. ‘There simply isn’t enough renewable energy available in our country.’
AN ALTERNATIVE FOR GREY HYDROGEN
However, according to the technology expert from VITO, green hydrogen does have a future if it is used directly, for example as a raw material for industrial processes such as desulphurisation and fertiliser production. At the moment, the type of hydrogen known as grey hydrogen is being used for this. Grey hydrogen is hydrogen extracted from natural gas by steam reforming, which releases a lot of CO2. ‘Replacing grey hydrogen with green hydrogen is worth doing so, as it will help turn our chemical industry more sustainable,’ says Vaes.
But where will all that green hydrogen actually come from, if it isn’t possible to produce a sufficient quantity using electricity from renewable sources in Belgium? Vaes: ‘As in other European countries, we are increasingly looking to regions outside Europe that offer enormous potential for renewable energy. For example, sunny areas with lots of open space (in the desert, for example) in regions such as the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula, but also wind-rich regions in South America, where very extensive onshore wind farms are already being constructed.’
The green hydrogen would be produced in those faraway places and then shipped – in gas or liquid form, or, for example, as methanol – to Europe. That way, the importing of gas and oil can be partly replaced by imported hydrogen (carriers).
Before this global hydrogen economy can get off the ground, however, the production of hydrogen from water – by means of electrolysis – will need to become cheaper and more efficient. ‘The better, commercially available systems can achieve an efficiency of 80 percent,’ says Metin Bulut from VITO. ‘Unfortunately, that efficiency declines rapidly due to use. And the systems are still very expensive today.’
That is why VITO recently joined forces with imec and Ghent University to significantly improve electrolysis technology. The recently launched project, H2MHYTIC, sets out to combine the expertise of Ghent University and imec in the field of electrode surfaces and electrolytes with VITO’s expertise in membranes, catalysis and system integration. The ultimate goal is to develop an electrolyzer that is both cheaper and more efficient (and stays that way). A demo version of the electrolyzer should trigger commercial parties to further upscale the technology on an industrial scale. ‘As far as the demo electrolyzer is concerned, we are aiming at a production capacity of about ten kilowatts,’ says Bulut. The aim is that this technology will find its way into megawatt-scale installations. Our part in that is to demonstrate that the technology is sound, with a view to achieving a global gigawatt-scale market in the future. The project is supported by the agency Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) and the Blue Cluster.
FILLING STATIONS FOR HYDROGEN
At the same time, imec and VITO are preparing for a Flemish project that is still in the pipeline. As part of that project, VITO will collaborate with a number of Belgian companies and industrial players to develop an electrolysis platform that should be ‘market ready’ in five years’ time and can be valorised.
The improved electrolyzers will also benefit domestic hydrogen production. Bulut: ‘They will be easier to be installed in the wind farms in our sector of the North Sea. This creates the possibility of turning the wind farms themselves into a type of hydrogen filling station. That may be a more effective solution than transferring the wind power to the shore via cables.’
Ultimately, the success of the large-scale production of hydrogen abroad and its global distribution will depend not only on the technology, but also on the economic picture. ‘The problem isn’t that the production of green hydrogen is too expensive, but lies in the fact that the fossil alternatives are just still too cheap. A carbon tax could change this,’ says Vaes. Yet in some cases and even without such a tax, the picture already appears economically viable. Recent auctions of green power in the Midwest of the United States (from wind farms) and in Morocco (from solar farms) have resulted in a price of between 10 and 15 euros per megawatt hour of electricity. That is sufficient to allow green hydrogen to be produced at a competitive price.’