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Electrolyzers – little known until now

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A green hydrogen economy depends on this little-known machine called an electrolyzer. Invented in 1880, it has been obscured for decades, but over one hundred and forty years later, its moment has come.

The first commercial electrolyzers hit the market in the 1920s. They were the main way to produce hydrogen until the 1960s, when a process using steam to strip hydrogen from natural gas supplanted them. Hydrogen pulled from natural gas, is called grey hydrogen. If the carbon dioxide released in the process is captured, it’s called blue hydrogen.

The electrolyzer uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If that electricity comes from wind turbines, solar panels or a nuclear reactor, the whole process gives off no greenhouse gases. Factories, power plants, even jet aircraft can then burn that hydrogen without warming the earth as in the process, the hydrogen joins with oxygen to become water gain. The ultimate environmental circularity!

There are other ways to make hydrogen fuel, from natural gas or even coal. But the ways to do it with no emissions that need to be trapped and stored, rely on the electrolyzer.

Unlike wind turbines and solar cells, electrolyzers aren’t immediately easy to understand. Larger ones can look like a jumble of tubes and pipes, while smaller, more modular versions are collections of electronics and machinery crammed into boxes the size of a shipping container or even a fridge.

Measured by the amount of power the machines consume, worldwide electrolyzer sales doubled from 200 megawatts in 2020 to 458 in 2021, according to BloombergNEF. Further, Bloomberg predicts their sales are expected to triple this year, reaching anywhere from 1,839 megawatts to 2,464 megawatts. It may be the kind of hockey-stick moment solar power experienced a decade ago.

Electrolyzer “gigafactories,” have been announced in Australia, China, India and Spain, each able to make enough electrolyzers in one year to use at least 1,000 megawatts of power

The amount of hydrogen each megawatt of electricity can produce varies, making comparisons between products and projects difficult. The most popular electrolyzer technology needs between 51 and 54-kilowatt hours of electricity, on average, to produce one kilogram of hydrogen.

The underlying idea may be old, but there’s plenty of innovation. Electrolyzers come in three basic flavours — alkaline, proton-exchange membrane (PEM), and solid oxide — with different pros and cons. All involve water reacting with oppositely charged electrodes and an electrolyte, sometimes liquid, sometimes solid.

Competitors are vying to perfect each technology. They’re paring down the use of such expensive catalysts as iridium and figuring out better ways to build a product that, until now, was largely assembled by hand.

Driving all of this is the need for a clean, carbon-free fuel. Solar and wind power now cost less than new fossil fuel generation in much of the world but storing that electricity in bulk remains difficult and expensive.

And some things, like steel mills and jet planes, can’t easily run-on electricity. A molecule that can be produced, stored, shipped and used without pumping heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere would work far better. Governments and companies worldwide are betting hydrogen will be that molecule.

The fact it can be stored is significant, and even better still, it can be transported from place to place. For many hydrogen advocates, the electrolyzer is the missing piece to fulfill renewable power’s promise. It can take the excess electricity streaming from solar plants at noon and turn it into a fuel for use any time.

Green hydrogen now costs far more than grey or blue. Green hydrogen costs as much as $10 a kilogram, compared to $3 for blue. But that is more than likely not to last. BNEF predicts that by 2030, green hydrogen will be cheaper than blue.

In support of this prediction, a new study shows that hydrogen could be produced for as little as AUD 2.85 ($1.98) per kilogram, supporting Frontier Energy’s plans to make green hydrogen from a 500 MW solar project it is developing in Western Australia.

Frontier Energy said that results from a pre-feasibility study (PFS) into its proposed Bristol Springs Solar project in Western Australia show that it has the potential to be an early mover, low-cost green hydrogen producer.

The PFS, conducted by Perth-based Xodus Group, is based on the development of a large-scale green hydrogen production facility at Bristol Springs, with power sourced from the company’s planned first stage 114 MWdc solar farm. The solar would power a 36.6 MW alkaline electrolyzer, producing an estimated 4.4 million kilograms of green hydrogen per year.

The author will watch this space with interest.

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