A British company is claiming a breakthrough in electrolyser and fuel cell technology that promises to knock down one of hydrogen’s cost barriers.
ITM-Power Plc of Saffron Waldon has developed a new polymer eight years in the making that its CEO Jim Heathcote claims cuts the cost of a square meter of membrane polymer from $500 to $5. Electrolyser membranes separate hydrogen from oxygen and convert it into an energy-carrying gas. In a fuel cell, the membrane separates hydrogen protons from electrons, which produce electrical current.
“The membrane is the most expensive component in an electrolyser,” says Heathcote. Now that ITM has built an electrolyser to demonstrate its membrane technology, it’s ready to license its patented membrane technology to electrolyser makers such as Proton Energy Systems or GE here or Norsk Hydro in Norway.
“We’ve talked to big and small companies. The big ones are less nimble than smaller ones and they’ll come when they are ready,” says Heathcote.
“Close your eyes and imagine a ball of wool in your two hands. Now take giant scissors and snip it all up and ball it up in your hands. It’s still a ball of wool,” he says in describing ITM’s entanglement polymer. However, such polymers tend to last only 50-100 hours before the ends of the polymer strings are eaten away by hydrogen and oxygen, he says.
So for years, fluorine has been used to create a fluoropolymer such as Dupont Nafion, but such a membrane is expensive to the tune of $500 a square member, according to Heathcote. ITM has figured out a way to forego fluorine to get rid of the ends of the polymer strings so there is little or no degradation. ITM’s membrane is called the “ionically conductive cross-linked hydrophilic polymer” and Heathcote says it’s patented (a web search yielded a similar-sounding patented material, but for a completely different application).
“One has to be very careful with these kinds of announcements. There are a number of people who can make these membranes and there’s many different varieties. The issue is always lifetime and that takes a while (to bear out),” says John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. “It sounds interesting, but it awaits outside verification. We all have to be from Missouri. Show me.”
In the U.S., such claims for this type of product are verified through testing at the Florida Solar Energy Center, says Turner.
As for the membrane’s durability, he can’t say.
“I can’t tell what the durability is because we can’t identify a failure mechanism,” he says, adding ITM has seen no degradation in 11,500 hours of testing. He says the membrane can be used in both acid and alkaline electrolysers. Turner says 11,500 hours is impressive, but only equates to about a year and half whereas electrolysers should last for 8-10 years.
Heathcote is keenly aware he has to prove to companies that ITM has discovered a breakthrough. That’s why ITM, he says, has a manufacturing plant in Sheffield to make a thousand electrolysers to demonstrate the technology to potential customers. Two days ago, ITM announced it has built a small home or small business that will produce about a kilogram of hydrogen that will take a duel-fuel Ford Focus a bit more than 25 miles compressed to 1,000 PSI in the car’s 3,500 PSI tank (the Dept. of Energy has set a goal of 10,000 PSI for FCV tanks in the U.S.).
“We don’t expect them believe our claim unless they kick our tires. We’ll price them just below existing electrolysers and keep reducing prices until we are sold out and have proven it’s commercially viable,” he says. “What we’ve done is a complete step change. One U.S. group told us we’ve jumped two generations ahead of the world.”
That remains to be seen.
“It’s hard to know where people stand on how close they are to commercialization,” says James Provenzano, co-author of the book The Hydrogen Age.