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Storing energy the hydrogen way the debut of a disruptive technology from McPhy

October 4, 2013 - By Adele Hars, Technology Writer and Director, High Tech Intl.

With the flip of a switch, the picturesque Provencal town of La Motte Franjas in the South of France was the site of a world debut in safe, clean hydrogen storage last week. McPhy Energy premiered a high-density storage (HDS) product line from 100 to 500 kg, the world's first industrial system coupling electrolysis with their unique hydrogen storage system (press release here). Officials and dignitaries from France and Germany gathered with over 300 guests to witness the event.

mcphy_inauguration-fig1.jpgThe McPhy Energy leadership team in front of their integrated electrolysis + solid hydrogen storage system for industrial markets - a world first.

So what was it all about?

As the VIPs poured in for the event, McPhy CEO Pascal Mauberger took some time from the morning's activities to explain the company's strategy to the press.

hydrure.jpgA disk with 5 kg totally safe solid hydrogen - McPhy Energy's core expertise (compare that to a typical tank, which can only hold about 800 g).

McPhy's original expertise is in storing hydrogen – a great energy carrier with a tough rep – in a solid, stable, safe format. With research partners, they're commercializing a very cool system that converts hydrogen gas into a solid using magnesium hydrides in patented nanostructures. (It is well-explained on the McPhy website. In case you're worried about magnesium, by the way, it's an abundant, easily recyclable resource with no negative environmental impact.)

Recently, McPhy's added electrolysis to their line-up – which uses electricity to convert water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen (well explained here).

So why would you want to do that?

It turns out there are two vectors for electrolysis + hydrogen storage, explained Mauberger. One is for the “merchant” market: industry that uses hydrogen in their manufacturing processes.  The other is for on-the-fly storage of excess energy from renewable energy sources.

First let's look at the merchant market – maybe not the most exciting, but certainly bankable.  There are lots of industries that use hydrogen as an ingredient in their manufacturing processes (having purchased an Italian hydrogen generator-by-water-electrolysis company called Piel at the beginning of the year, McPhy has several thousand such customers). Under the traditional supply system, hydrogen arrives at a site either trucked in tanks or bottles (clearly not a great CO2 footprint) or delivered by pipelines. The McPhy integrated electrolysis + solid storage approach proposes instead that companies produce their own hydrogen on-the-fly, onsite, as needed, and store enough to have a comfortable backup. (There's a good explanation here.)

Now the electricity needed to run the electrolysis systems (hydrogen generators) – they can get that off their local electrical grid. So it's a good investment, which McPhy expects will enable companies to produce their own hydrogen for less than 10 Euros/kg (the current going rate) within the next couple years.

But look where this is going – you can get the electricity off your local grid if you're in industry, yes. But what if you have a wind farm, and you're producing electricity day and night – sometimes more, sometimes less?  You want to feed it into the grid, but the grid is a delicate thing. The folks that run electrical grids plan well in advance to align power production to power needs. Just because the wind is kicking up and you can provide lots of electricity doesn't mean they can accommodate it – if they've just spent hours bringing up the level of a nuclear power plant to meet peak demand, they're not going to bring it down just because you're looking at a gusty afternoon.

The thing about power is it's “use it or lose it”. So the wind is blowing, you've got all this power being generated by your wind farm: what do you with do it? Under the McPhy solution, you store it as hydrogen.

The McPhy hydrogen storage system is 90 % efficient, and provides a much higher volume density than compressed or liquid gas (explained here).

So the wind's gusting, and through electrolysis you're converting your wind farm's excess energy into hydrogen (you use a bit of the electricity you're producing to drive the electrolysis itself). You store the hydrogen as a safe solid that you can later extract and convert into electricity via the turbine or fuel cell of your choice (fuel cell conversion efficiency is currently about 50 %) and feed it into the grid when they need it. So really, this is as green as it gets! (There's a good diagram here.)

Or, there's another solution to what to do with the stored hydrogen that's getting some traction: power-to-gas. Natural gas is mostly made of methane – aka CH4. It turns out that you can goose your natural gas supply by injecting hydrogen into it – up to 20 % (or you can convert your hydrogen to synthentic methane). In fact, there's currently a GDF/Suez project in the French town of Dunkerque (yes, the famous one up on the English channel), where a section of the town is going to have its natural gas lines boosted with hydrogen produced by water electrolysis systems at nearby wind farms. McPhy's providing the intermediate hydrogen storage.

It turns out that power-to-gas is an important solution for places like Germany, where they've suddenly got more windpower than they can handle. In fact – and this was one of the announcements McPhy also made during their inauguration festivities – the company is taking over the electrolysis work of a major German windfarm player called Enertrag. 

Enertrag, which has built over 520 windfarms in Europe, has developed some whoppingly big hydrogen generators (based again on electrolysis of water) that can handle up to several megawatts. These are specifically designed to meet the needs of big renewable energy farms. But the company doesn't want to be in the generator-manufacturing business, so they're handing that business (which had been called HyTec) off to McPhy (here's the press release announcing it) – and will keep working with McPhy on projects, they said.

h2-car.jpgA hydrogen-driven Renault on display at the McPhy inauguration. Such vehicles have a range around 600 km.

Another place solid hydrogen storage is headed is mobility. This is starting in Berlin, said Mauberger: hydrogen will be produced and stored by wind farms then distributed at “hydromobility service stations”. He said you can recharge the fuel cell on a hydrogen vehicle in 3 or 4 minutes. If that hydrogen comes from renewable energy sources, it really is a totally green, carbon-free solution. Stations will be rolling out in the 2015-2020 timeframe in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, California, Canada, and eventually France.

So, lots of really exciting prospects here. It looks like once you can cleanly, efficiently and safely generate and store hydrogen, vast new green horizons open.

mcphy_inauguration-fig2.jpgVIPs at the McPhy Energy event inaugurating the first electrolysis + hydrogen storage system, including: Werner DIWALD (member of the Enertrag AG board); Pascal MAUBERGER (CEO McPhy Energy); Gerd HARMS (Representing the Brandenburg Ministry); Jean-Jack QUEYRANNE (President of the Rhône-Alpes regional counsel and deputy); Hervé MARITON (deputy from the Drôme department); Didier GUILLAUME (Senator, Vice-President of the French Senate and president of the Drome regional council).