Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

20 September 2019

Offshore Hydrogen manufacture at the heart of key UK project

One of the funding rounds that the UK government listed yesterday in its press release is for something called Gigastack – hydrogen manufacture by gigawatt scale electrolysis. With strategic investment, the UK is looking to become a leader in the technology, but from smart grid and environmentalist perspectives, hydrogen has proven problematic. It takes electricity to make hydrogen, and this is energy that could be used instead of the advanced fuel.

There have been many promising electrolysis approaches to creating hydrogen from water, and there is a bit of a religious war between those that use a polymer-electrolyte membrane (PEM – some call it a proton-exchange membrane) and alkaline water electrolysis – but both clearly remain options, and the PEM approach is thought to sit well with wind or solar fed electricity.

A PEM works with electrolysis of water in a cell with a solid polymer electrolyte, which has the role of conducting protons and separating the two gases. It works with low current density which is supposed to drive costs down and works well when there is spare renewable energy, and it can slow down at other times when there is less energy available.

This project is planned to demonstrate delivery of bulk, low-cost and zero-carbon hydrogen through gigawatt-scale PEM electrolysis, manufactured in the UK. It produces very high-grade hydrogen which doesn’t have to be further purified – which makes storage that much safer too.

ITM Power, public on the UK AIM market, is at the heart of this trial and took some funding from the UK Government and is working with Ørsted and Element Energy, a Cambridge consulting firm. The idea is to create a 5 MW stack-module feasibility study, which if successful will led to bidding for further funding for an actual implementation.

The 5MW module could then be put on top of one another in an almost unlimited stack – hence the name Gigastack – and certainly up to 100 MW. Presumably these would be placed near Ørsted owned offshore wind farms, to convert spare energy into hydrogen, and to push it into key chemical processes around the UK, but almost certainly into the existing gas mains, for domestic home heating.

This is designed to become a semi-automated manufacturing facility which could offer up to 1GW per year, with almost no labor costs. Stack this and put it around a variety of wind farms and you have massive gigawatt-scale hydrogen for almost no cost.

The deployment of PEM electrolysers on such a large scale has not been possible to date, as it requires low-cost stack modules which are easily integrated into larger electrolyser systems, and much larger automated manufacturing facilities (the largest electrolyser factories globally are capable of less than 30MW of capacity output per annum).

It is all about ITM Power’s innovations in stack design which should reduce the cost of installing electrolysers so that a hydrogen economy can be kicked started for a lot less up-front cash.

In Phase One, ITM will develop the designs and finalize material requirements and maximize throughput. Ørsted will work out how to fit it profitably into its offshore business model, and Element Energy will conduct further market analysis of use cases. In Phase Two, the 5MW stack would be built and tested in-house and in a live wind hydrogen scenario.

While this may establish the UK as a center of excellence for hydrogen production, there are similar ideas in Australia, the Netherlands, and off the coast in the North Sea, with Danish and Scandinavian interests, but this will certainly create a huge impact if Ørsted takes the concept to all of its offshore wind locations, which extend all over the world and which are strong in Germany, Taiwan and the US. By 2030 this could make Ørsted a global leader in hydrogen production offshore.

Matthew Wright, UK Managing Director at Ørsted, said, “We’ve seen the cost of offshore wind reduced dramatically thanks to industry and government working together, and I hope this project can be the start of a similar journey with green hydrogen.”