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Rechargeable PEM fuel cell with hydrogen storage polymer

Energy-converting devices such as fuel cells are among the most efficient and clean alternative energy-producing sources. They have the potential to replace fossil-fuel-based power generators. More specifically, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are promising energy conversion devices for residential, transportation and portable applications owing to their high power density and efficiency at low operating temperatures (ca. 60–80 °C). For the complete approach, with electrolytic hydrogen renewable sources, PEM fuel cells can become one of the cleanest energy carriers. This is because water is the final product of such energy conversion systems. Currently, Nafion™ membranes are regularly used as hydrogen barriers in these fuel cells.

A Proton exchange membrane

Sufficient hydrogen gas supply is crucial for practical application of the PEMFC systems. Currently, expensive high-pressure tanks (70 MPa) are state-of-the-art for hydrogen storage. Besides cost, there are other drawbacks such as portability and safety. In order to address these issues, alternative hydrogen storage materials have been extensively investigated. For example, metal hydrides and organic hydride materials, can fix and release hydrogen via covalent bonding.

Now, Dr. Junpei Miyake and colleagues of the University of Yamanashi, Japan, have proposed an “all-polymer” rechargeable PEMFC system (RCFC). The work has been published in Nature Communications Chemistry. Their strategy was to apply a hydrogen-storage polymer (HSP) sheet (a solid-state organic hydride) as a hydrogen-storage medium inside the fuel cell. With this approach, the issues like toxicity, flammability and volatility as well as concerns related to other components such as the fuel reservoir, feed pump and vaporizer were solved. The HSP structure is based on fluorenol/fluorenone groups that take over hydrogen-storage functionality.

In order to test the performance of their HSP-based rechargeable fuel cell, the scientists attached the HSP sheet of the membrane electrode to the catalyst layer of the anode. At the same time, the cathode side was operated as in a regular PEMFC. The researchers reported that an iridium catalyst has been applied to the inside of the HSP sheet to improve the hydrogen-releasing and fixing processes.

Fuel cell operation, cycle performance and durability were tested using cycles of 6 periodic steps. At first, hydrogen was infused into HSP sheet for 2 h, followed by nitrogen gas flushing to remove hydrogen from the anode. Then, heating of the cell up to 80°C to initiated hydrogen release from the HSP sheet. Together with oxygen gas supplied to the cathode side the fuel cell produced constant electrical current.

The team demonstrated that their HSP sheet released 20%, 33%, 51%, or 96% of the total fixed hydrogen gas in 20, 30, 60, or 360 min, respectively. The temperature was 80°C in the presence of the iridium catalyst. Also, the iridium catalyst could absorb up to 58 mol% hydrogen, which was considerably lower than that stored in the HSP. The maximum operation time was approximately 10.2 s / mgHSP (ca. 509 s for 50 mg of HSP) at a constant current density of 1 mA / cm2. The RCFCs reached cycleability of least 50 cycles. In addition, the utilization of a gas impermeable sulfonated poly-phenylene membrane (SPP-QP, another type of PEM) turned out to be a good strategy to enhance the opration time of the RCFC.

The advantageous features of the reported RCFC system include better safety, easier handling and lower weight. These are perfect for example in mobile application such as fuel cell vehicles. However, for the improvement of the RCFC performance, hydrogen storage capacity and kinetics (H2-releasing/fixing reactions) as well as catalyst stability need further improvements.

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CO2-neutral traffic

Fossil fuels have made tremendous social and economic advances pssible. This becomes clear, among other things, if you look at the increase in road traffic. Around 90 million vehicles were produced in 2019. In 2000 it was 60 million. It is assumed that the number of vehicles produced by 2030 will grow to 120 million. The increase in road mobility undoubtedly has a positive impact on social mobility and economic growth. However, this also makes the traffic increase a self-accelerating process. Economic growth in the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is particularly crucial in this regard. At the same time, it is expected that the proportion of electric vehicles, including hybrids, will also increase sharply. However, whether this is realistic, given the limited lithium reserves, can again be doubted.

In 2010 more than 1 billion cars were registered worldwide. With an annual increase of around 3%, it was already 1.3 billion in 2019. These emit around 6.0 billion tons of CO2 annually (out of a total of 33 billion tons worldwide), making them the largest expanding source of CO2. Energy-related CO2 emissions are generally continuing to rise, although this increase was briefly interrupted by the global health crisis of 2020. In addition, there are 20 to 30% of emissions from the production of fuels and the manufacture and disposal of vehicles.

Life cycle analyzes of vehicles with different drive concepts are the subject of many studies. When it comes to CO2 emissions, the energy source is crucial. Two main developments are discussed today: the electrification of the propulsion system (i.e. fully and partially electrified vehicles) and the electrification of fuels (i.e. hydrogen and synthetic fuels).

In the manufacture of synthetic fuels, water is broken down into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis with renewable electricity. Due to the temporary oversupply of renewable electricity, this energy is particularly cheap. The hydrogen can then be used in hydrogen vehicles propelled by fuel cells. Alternatively, CO2 can be converted into hydrocarbons with hydrogen and then used in conventional combustion engines in a climate-neutral manner. The advantage of fuel cell vehicles is their high efficiency and the low cost of electrolysis. The disadvantage is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. Converting from hydrocarbons to hydrogen would cost trillions. The cheaper alternative would be synthetic hydrocarbons. However, the development is still in its infancy and the production of synthetic fuels cannot yet be carried out on a large scale.

Hydrogen and synthetic fuels are a necessary addition to electromobility, especially for long-distance and load transport. The widespread view that the low level of efficiency of internal combustion engines makes these fuels uninteresting ignores the possibility of using them to store and transport energy and to enable climate neutrality for air and shipping traffic. If you compare the CO2 emissions from electric motors and electrified fuels, it becomes clear that these mainly depend on the CO2 pollution of the electricity used.

Synthetic fuel sources

The production of synthetic fuel requires renewable electricity, water and CO2. The technical processes are known. However, the first large-scale industrial plants are only in the planning phase. However, pilot projects such as that of the Canadian company Carbon Engineering have shown the technical feasibility of scaling. The generation costs depend mainly on the size of the plant and the electricity price, which results from the local conditions, the structure of the electricity market and the share of renewable electricity.

The decentralized production of these fuels brings not only climate neutrality but also geopolitical gains. Since CO2 and renewable energy – in contrast to lithium – are generally accessible resources, users of this technology become independent of energy imports. At Frontis Energy we think these are strong arguments in favor of synthetic fuels.

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Energy storage in Denmark

Denmark’s Electricity Portfolio

In our last post of our blog series about energy storage in Europe we focused on Italy. Now we move back north, to Denmark. Unsurprisingly, Denmark is known as a pioneer of wind energy. Relying almost exclusively on imported oil for its energy needs in the 1970s, renewable energy has grown to make up over half of electricity generated in the country. Denmark is targeting 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and 100 percent renewable energy in all sectors by 2050.

Electricity Production in Denmark (2016)

Proximity to both Scandinavia and mainland Europe makes exporting and importing power rather easy for the Danish system operator, Energinet.dk. This provides Denmark with the flexibility needed to achieve significant penetration of intermittent energy sources like wind while maintaining grid stability.

While the results to-date have been promising, getting to 100 percent renewable energy will still require a significant leap and the official policies that Denmark will use to guide this transition have yet to be delivered. However, there has been some indication at what the ultimate policies may look like. In their report Energy Scenarios for 2020, 2035 and 2050, the Danish Energy Agency outlined four different scenarios for becoming fossil-free by 2050 while meeting the 100 percent renewable electricity target of 2035. The scenarios, which are primarily built around deployment of wind energy or biomass, are:

  • Wind Scenario – wind as the primary energy source, along with solar PV, and combined heat and power. Massive electrification of the heat and transportation sectors.
  • Biomass Scenario – less wind deployment that in the wind scenario, with combined heat and power providing electricity and district heating. Transportation based on biofuels.
  • Bio+ Scenario – existing coal and gas generation replaced with bioenergy, 50% of electricity from wind. Heat from biomass and electricity (heat pumps).
  • Hydrogen Scenario – electricity from wind used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis. Hydrogen used as renewable energy storage medium, as well as  transportation fuel. Hydrogen scenario would require massive electrification of heat and transport sectors, while requiring wind deployment at faster rate than the wind scenario.

Agora Energiewende and DTU Management Engineering, have postulated that this scenario report does in fact show that transitioning the Danish energy sector to 100 percent renewables by 2050 is technically feasible under multiple pathways. However, Danish policy makers must decide before 2020 whether the energy system will evolve into a fuel-based biomass system, or electricity-based wind energy system (they must decided which of the four scenarios to pursue).

Energy Storage Facilities – Denmark

Regardless of which energy policy scenario Denmark decides to pursue, energy storage will be a central aspect of a successful energy transition. There are currently three EES facilities operating in Denmark, all of which are electro-chemical (batteries). A fourth EES facility – the HyBalance project – is currently under construction and will convert electricity produced by wind turbines to hydrogen through PEM electrolysis (proton exchange membrane).

Project Name

Technology Type

Capacity (kW)

Discharge (hrs)

Status

Service Use

RISO Syslab Redox Flow Battery Electro-chemical Flow Battery 15 8 Operational Renewables Capacity Firming
Vestas Lem Kær ESS Demo 1.2 MW Electro-chemical Lithium-ion Battery 1,200 0.25 Operational Frequency Regulation
Vestas Lem Kær ESS Demo 400 kW Electro-chemical Lithium-ion Battery 400 0.25 Operational Frequency Regulation
HyBalance Hydrogen Storage Hydrogen Power-to-Gas 1,250 Operational Renewables integration
BioCat Power-to-Gas Methane Storage Methane Power-to-Gas 1,000 Decommissioned Gas Grid Injection & Frequency Regulation

The HyBalance project is the pilot plant undertaking of Power2Hydrogen, a working group comprised of major industry players and academic research institutions aimed at demonstrating the large-scale potential for hydrogen from wind energy. The plant will produce up to 500 kg/day of hydrogen, used for transportation and grid balancing.

Worth noting is the decommissioned BioCat Power-to-Gas project, a pilot plant project which operated from 2014 to 2016 in Hvidovre, Denmark. The project, a joint collaboration between Electrochaea and several industry partners (funded by Energienet.dk), was a 1 MWe Power-to-Gas (methane) facility built to demonstrate the commercial capabilities of methane power-to-gas. The BioCat project was part of Electrochaea’s goal of reaching commercialization in late 2016, however, as of early 2017 no further updates have been given.

Energy Storage Market Outlook − Denmark

The energy storage market in Denmark will be most primed for growth should policy follow the Hydrogen Scenario, where massive amounts of hydrogen production will be needed to eliminate the use of fossil fuels across all sectors.

Renewable energy produced gases (hydrogen, methane) have the potential to balance the electricity grid in two primary ways: balancing supply and demand (“smart grid”), and balancing through physical storage. The smart grid, an intelligent electricity grid where production and consumption are administered centrally, presents significant opportunity for electrolysis technologies as short-term “buffer” storage (seconds to minutes). Bulk physical storage of renewable energy produced gases can act as a longer-term storage solution (hours, days, weeks, months) to help maintain flexibility in a fossil-free energy grid (The Danish Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells).

Without the hydrogen scenario, the potential for hydrogen-based energy storage in Denmark will be limited. In their 2016 report “potential of hydrogen in energy systems”, the Power2Hydrogen working group concluded that:

  • hydrogen electrolysers would not provide any significant upgrade on flexibility for renewables integration over today’s sufficiently flexible system, and;
  • by 2035, with the increased wind production, it was concluded that hydrogen electrolysers would in fact improve system flexibility, allowing for even more extensive penetration of wind energy in the system.

The potential for renewable energy produced gases in Demark is extremely high. There is a very distinct possibility that power-to-gas type of systems will be the linchpin of Denmark’s energy transition. While there appears to be little opportunity in the short-term, there will be extensive opportunity in the medium-to-long-term should the official energy transition policy focus on the hydrogen scenario, or a similar renewable gas based policy.

Read here our next post on the prospects for energy storage in Spain.

(Jon Martin, 2019)

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Cheap, high-octane biofuel discovered

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a cheap method for producing high-octane gasoline from methanol. They recently published their method in the journal Nature Catalysis. Methanol can be synthesized from CO2 via various routes, as we reported last year. Biomass, such as wood, is one possibility.

The production of biofuels from wood, however, is too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. To find a solution to this problem, the researchers combined their basic research with an economic analysis. The researchers initially aimed at the most expensive part of the process. Thereafter, the researchers found methods to reduce these costs with methanol as an intermediate.

So far, the cost of converting methanol to gasoline or diesel was about $1 per gallon. The researchers have now reached a price of about $0.70 per gallon.

The catalytic conversion of methanol into gasoline is an important research area in the field of CO2 recovery. The traditional method is based on multi-stage processes and high temperatures. It is expensive, producing low quality fuel in small quantities. Thus, it is not competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

Hydrogen deficiency was the initially problem the researcher had to overcome. Hydrogen is the key energy containing element in hydrocarbons. The researchers hypothesized that using the transition metal copper would solve this problem, which it did. They estimated that the copper-infused catalyst resulted in 38% more yield at lower cost.

By facilitating the reintegration of C4 byproducts during the homologation of dimethyl ether, the copper zeolite catalyst enabled this 38% increase in product yield and a 35% reduction in conversion cost compared to conventional zeolite catalysts. Alternatively, C4 by-products were passed to a synthetic kerosene meeting five specifications for a typical jet fuel. Then, the fuel synthesis costs increased slightly. Even though the cost savings are minimal, the resulting product has a higher value.

Apart from the costs, the new process offers users further competitive advantages. For example, companies can compete with ethanol producers for credits for renewable fuels (if the carbon used comes from biogas or household waste). The process is also compatible with existing methanol plants that use natural gas or solid waste to produce syngas.

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Faster photoelectrical hydrogen

Achieving high current densities while maintaining high energy efficiency is one of the biggest challenges in improving photoelectrochemical devices. Higher current densities accelerate the production of hydrogen and other electrochemical fuels.

Now a compact, solar-powered, hydrogen-producing device has been developed that provides the fuel at record speed. In the journal Nature Energy, the researchers around Saurabh Tembhurne describe a concept that allows capturing concentrated solar radiation (up to 474 kW/m²) by thermal integration, mass transport optimization and better electronics between the photoabsorber and the electrocatalyst.

The research group of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) calculated the maximum increase in theoretical efficiency. Then, they experimentally verified the calculated values ​​using a photoabsorber and an iridium-ruthenium oxide-platinum based electrocatalyst. The electrocatalyst reached a current density greater than 0.88 A/cm². The calculated conversion efficiency of solar energy into hydrogen was more than 15%. The system was stable under various conditions for more than two hours. Next, the researchers want to scale their system.

The produced hydrogen can be used in fuel cells for power generation, which is why the developed system is suitable for energy storage. The hydrogen-powered generation of electricity emits only pure water. However, the clean and fast production of hydrogen is still a challenge. In the photoelectric method, materials similar to those of solar modules were used. The electrolytes were based on water in the new system, although ammonia would also be conceivable. Sunlight reaching these materials triggers a reaction in which water is split into oxygen and hydrogen. So far, however, all photoelectric methods could not be used on an industrial scale.

2 H2O → 2 H2 + O2; ∆G°’ = +237 kJ/mol (H2)

The newly developed system absorbed more than 400 times the amount of solar energy that normally shines on a given area. The researchers used high-power lamps to provide the necessary “solar energy”. Existing solar systems concentrate solar energy to a similar degree with the help of mirrors or lenses. The waste heat is used to accelerate the reaction.

The team predicts that the test equipment, with a footprint of approximately 5 cm, can produce an estimated 47 liters of hydrogen gas in six hours of sunshine. This is the highest rate per area for such solar powered electrochemical systems. At Frontis Energy we hope to be able to test and offer this system soon.

(Photo: Wikipedia)