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Novel fuel cell technology eases industry transition towards hydrogen-powered fleets

The CH2P project brings about a new technology for hydrogen refuelling stations, capable of cogenerating hydrogen, heat and electricity from natural gas and biomethane. The device combines high efficiencies with low environmental impact and high hydrogen purity.

Transport and Mobility
Energy

We won’t see all fossil fuel stations being replaced by electric vehicle (EV) charging stations tomorrow, let alone by hydrogen ones. The transition will be progressive, and in the case of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), so will the technologies being implemented. The CH2P (Cogeneration of Hydrogen and Power using solid oxide based system fed by methane rich gas) project was born out of the realisation that green hydrogen from renewables is variable by nature and will sometimes require a backup from other sources. The project therefore aimed to come up with a transition technology: a system generating hydrogen from carbon-lean natural gas or biomethane. CH2P’s solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) is akin to a combined heat and power system. It uses high-quality heat from the fuel cell to generate hydrogen. A prototype is being prepared for testing at the Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We find out more from Luigi Crema, CH2P’s coordinator.

EVs seem to be the priority of car manufacturers and refuelling networks right now. How do you explain the lack of interest in FCEVs?

Luigi Crema: This is a valid observation from an external perspective, and is probably due to the current state of development of hydrogen refuelling networks and infrastructure. But the situation is rapidly changing in several EU countries. In Germany, for example, 80 hydrogen refuelling stations (HRSs) have been built in a plan to create a network of 1 000 HRSs by 2030. It must also be said that interest in FCEVs is growing with the consolidation of programmes introducing recharging stations for battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Although the BEV has been in development for a longer time, I see two important factors that will contribute to increasing the interest in FCEVs over the coming years. First, there is a growing interest from the heavy-duty transport sector in FCE trucks, rail convoys and ships. Here, hydrogen is perceived as the optimal solution for long-distance vehicles. Second, there is growing evidence that we can’t count only on the electric grid to support all future energy consumption. We rather need sectorial integration to reach a net-zero emitting society by 2050. There are several relevant applications where molecules (hydrogen) have advantages over electrons (batteries or cables). My opinion is that we need both to reach the European Commission’s targets for 2050.

How does a project like CH2P ease the transition towards FCEVs’ wider adoption?

CH2P is an innovative HRS system. It can support early transport infrastructure deployment for the uptake of FCEVs. The CH2P system cogenerates hydrogen, heat and power using solid oxide cell technology fuelled by methane-rich gases. It reduces carbon footprint by achieving an extremely high overall system efficiency – close to 80 %. The system generates both hydrogen and electricity with lower environmental impact than conventional technologies. It could very well be applied to all alternative fuels listed by the European Directive DAFI for a single, multi-fuel station.

What exactly makes this system so innovative? Can you elaborate?

There are several innovations introduced by CH2P. The first is the reforming of methane combined with the flexible use of a solid oxide fuel cell. This flexibility perfectly meets end users’ refuelling needs. Meanwhile, the cogeneration of a variable portion of hydrogen, heat and power optimises economic value and carbon footprint and makes for a very efficient solution. There is also the core of the fuel cell: we are working on an innovative balance of plant (BoP) wrapped around both the hot and cold parts. We put a lot of efforts into the optimisation of the overall layout. This covers an efficient purification system in the form of a pressure swing adsorber (PSA) together with a pressurisation step by a hydrogen compressor.

How close are you to meeting your objectives?

We have validated all building blocks of the final system and minimised the risks of failures through in-depth simulation process. We have analysed the overall technology layout, as well as the design of the control and safety system for the first prototype. This has been done by means of laboratory and factory testing, checking behaviour and validating individual component performance. The activity has been supported by all partners, including Shell.

What were the main difficulties you faced and how did you overcome them?

We accumulated some delay during the activities, compensated by the good results obtained. The CH2P technology is a breakthrough rather than an incremental innovation for solid oxide cells. The design and validation of the different parts of the technology were complex, and it was challenging to accommodate our targets with the constraints of single components. In the end, we exceeded our initial expectations by building a solution able to match flexibility in use and energy generation with high performances and low cost. This was not foreseen at the beginning of the project for the basic technology blocks, but it progressively became the value proposition of the CH2P system.

What do you still need to achieve before the end of the project?

We are now preparing for the testing of the full 20 kgH2/day prototype at HyGear in Arnhem (the Netherlands). It will be followed by the integration of a second module to conduct pilot testing at the Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam. The CH2P system will then be connected to a local hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. At the end of the CH2P project, we will have the complete life cycle analysis (LCA) performed by Vertech to assess the environmental footprint, carbon emission and cost impacts. But the story doesn’t end there. We received a second grant which covers the reversible use of the same technology, enabling the inverse electrolysis mode coupled with the use of renewables. The new SWITCH project will extend the scope of the CH2P system by developing a new solution that can generate mostly green hydrogen (from renewables in electrolysis mode) that is always secured (in CH2P operation, from methane-rich mixtures). This is a prerequisite to grant a service of use while maximising the use of renewable energy.

Keywords

CH2P, hydrogen, natural gas, biomethane, transition technology, fuel cell