Joining forces for affordable hydrogen

Published on December 16, 2021

To make an impact on society with their work on electrolysers for hydrogen production, DIFFER collaborates with EIRES researchers and industrial manufacturer VDL Groep in a project funded by the Brabant Development Agency (BOM). Marius Ponten, Director of Special Projects at VDL Groep: ‘Learning by doing is the fastest route to innovation.’

The partnership started around 2019, Marius Ponten recollects. ‘TU/e and VDL Groep expressed their intention to start working together more closely. In the initial conversations about topics and partnerships, EIRES was identified as an institute that could strengthen our energy and sustainability ambitions.’ Eventually, VDL, EIRES and DIFFER found each other in their ambition to improve green hydrogen production. ‘From a commercial point of view, hydrogen represents a very interesting growth market,’ Ponten explains. ‘All current electrolyser production facilities combined can only produce a few gigawatts per year, whereas toward 2050, the demand is expected to rise over a hundredfold. For us as a manufacturing company, this collaboration is an excellent opportunity to explore our added value in the hydrogen value chain.’

Learning while building
With some financial aid of the Province of North Brabant, over the past year the three partners have been working towards a more cost effective and efficient electrolyser which allows for a significant reduction of the hydrogen cost price. ‘BOM has provided us with funding for three years. In this period, we want to determine which designs we can produce in high volumes at the best performance to cost ratio, and what technology fits which markets best.’ As far as Ponten is concerned, by the end of 2022 a first prototype stack should be demonstrated. ‘Because it is our firm belief that you learn the most about a system when you are building one.’

Market mindset influences design choices
Where EIRES and DIFFER focus on the fundamentals of the electrolyser itself, VDL focusses primarily on market research and cost drivers, Ponten explains. ‘For instance, is it cheaper to install 40 smaller stacks of 500 kilowatts each, or should we aim for a single 20 megawatt stack? To what extent can membranes and electrodes be scaled up in a robust and reliable way? And what practical restrictions do we have to take into account? For example, what is the biggest system size that still fits in a truck? In this partnership we strive for a system that delivers hydrogen at the lowest possible price per kilogram and uses the lowest amount of rare materials possible.’
Keeping the supply chain in mind during the development has important implications for the design of the system, the entrepreneur says. ‘Take the choice of materials. Many of the current electrolysers rely on iridium as a catalyst. But iridium is scarce. We see that as a risk for the future. For me the energy transition is about finding sustainable and affordable energy solutions without running into material shortages. Scientist should focus on abundant materials for these challenges as much as possible.’

Future markets
Besides cost reduction, the company also focusses on the assessment of possible future markets. Ponten: ‘We want to help define a roadmap for the hydrogen-based society. What industrial processes are most suitable for the introduction of electrolysers? Each application has its own set of requirements. For example, if you want to use hydrogen to reduce iron in the steel industry, high temperature waste heat could make a perfect combination with solid oxide electrolysis. But for applications where you use the hydrogen as a feedstock, let’s say to produce ammonia, you could do with polymer electrolyte membrane technology for instance. Since our target market is not yet clear, we have left the choice of technology open for now. And time-to-market considerations will also influence the choices to be made.’

Within the current three-year joint project, VDL will develop an stack cost model, conduct a market analysis, and create a roadmap for electrolysers. ‘Ultimately, we aim for a competitive hydrogen production technology. First of all to help the world reach the goal of becoming CO2 neutral by 2050. Besides that, for us this is also an interesting opportunity to spread our wings into new markets and make a difference.’

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