VIDEO: Cracking the Hydrogen Conundrum with Wastes

There’s little doubt that electric vehicles are the future and hydrogen fuel cells offer great advantages. Unfortunately, hydrogen is costly to produce and transport. PowerHouse Energy believes the answer is a distributed waste to hydrogen network.

Powerhouse's vision to to produce hydrogen from wastes in locations close to its point of use.

Image © Powerhouse Energy

Working at the Thornton Science Park with the University of Chester, over the past few years PowerHouse Energy has designed and tested its Distributed Modular Gasification (DMG) system which uses the G3 ultra-high temperature gasification unit.

In October last year the firm held an open day which saw over 100 people come through its door to see its demonstrator G3 unit in operation. In December it reached the Prefeed Completion stage of the system to validate the equipment, its efficiencies and its outputs. According to the company the units have proved successful at creating a syngas which can be turned into 99.999% hydrogen suitable for use in fuel cell vehicles.

Having signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Peel Environmental the company set about identifying potential sites for its first commercial scale deployment. It has now chosen a new one acre site which is conveniently located near the University of Chester, Thornton Science Park, where the PowerHouse G3-UHt Research Demonstrator is operating. Initially the project will use syngas to generate electricity – and revenue. However, under a deal with AFC Energy PLC Fuel Cell license holder and consultancy, Waste2Tricity, as the hydrogen economy expands a conversion unit will be added to generate hydrogen.

“We’ve designed a totally new philosophy, Distributed Modular Gasification (DMG),” Keith Allaun, CEO of PowerHouse Energy tells WMW. “We’re the pioneers of waste to hydrogen. What we discovered is that at the temperatures at which we operate we’re able to liberate and decarbonise the hydrogen more efficiently, more cost effectively and more environmentally robustly than any other mechanism that exists today. We believe we’re the key to unlocking the hydrogen economy.”

“There’s still going to be a ramp-up and adoption curve to achieve full engagement – certainly full consumer engagement,” he continues. “We think that the early adopters of the hydrogen economy are going to be industrial transport and industrial users. We can produce hydrogen for them on their site and using their waste. We can take the waste and generate hydrogen from it. Then we take the tail gases from that and generate clean, green electricity and effectively create a virtuous circle.”

Allaun explains that key to concept is to have the smallest footprint possible allowing the solution to be taken to the problem rather than the problem to the solution.

H-Bomb Ready to Explode
While its use in both traditional combustion engines and electric fuel cells is well proven, to date one of the major challenges with hydrogen has been that it’s very expensive to make and transport. Allaun explains that the beauty of the DMG system is that it offers a means of being paid to process the feedstock from which to make hydrogen in locations where it can be directly used at an on-site vehicle filling station.

Currently hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles are an extremely rare sight on the roads. However, in August 2015 Toyota began US sales of its Mirai – a hydrogen fuel cell powered sedan hailed by many, not least Toyota itself, as the start of the hydrogen revolution. In December, along with Connecticut based FuelCell Energy, the Japanese automaker broke ground on the first MW scale carbonate fuel-cell power generation plant in California. In addition to generating power the plant will also feature a hydrogen fueling station from which Toyota will fuel Class 8 Trucks.

Truck manufacturer Kenworth is also dipping its toes into the market with a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid Class 8 drayage truck for use in the test program hauling freight to Los Angeles area warehouses from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Unlike Toyota which uses its own fuel cell technology, the Kenworth truck will feature a FCveloCity®-HD 85 kW fuel cell from Canadian firm Ballard Power Systems.

In the UK Powerhouse recently signed an MoU with Northern Irish bus manufacturer, Wrightbus, in a deal which Allaun says is the “first step in a number of infrastructure plays that are going on throughout the EU”. The memorandum is expected to lead to a definitive deal for a venture with Powerhouse supplying its DMG system and Wrightbus supplying hydrogen fuel powered buses.

Big is Not Always Beautiful
While the major oil companies are also producing hydrogen, and have plans for a significant role out of fuelling stations, Allaun says that the manufacturing process produces 16 times more CO2 than Powerhouse’s. He also explains that part of that is due to the transportation costs.

A 2012 study published by UCL Energy Institute, University College London, cites tube trailer capacity as being between 250 kg and 500 kg and road tanker capacity as being 3000 – 4500 kg.

“The production of hydrogen from a large-scale steam methane reformer means it needs to be distributed. The distribution of hydrogen is a nightmare,” explains Howard White, a consultant to the company and the Executive Deputy Chairman of Waste2Tricity. “When they’re talking about distributing hydrogen for cars or the industrial sector, they’re talking about charging $15 to $20 per kg. It’s not something that’s attractive.”

“Waste2Tricity came in because we’ve always been looking for an opportunity with distributed hydrogen,” he adds. “The hydrogen economy is the only thing I’m interested in. If you work on the economics of natural gas and steam methane reforming for every tonne of hydrogen you produce you produce 16 tonnes of CO2.”

Altrnatively, White says that with a small system operating where there is demand for the hydrogen, you can be paid a gate fee to take 25 tonnes of feedstock, sell electricity to the grid, or use it on-site, and sell hydrogen for $3-5 per kg, which is comparable to petrol or diesel, and still be making a profit. The entire Capex is around $13 million with the hydrogen production and $6.5 million without.

“The fundamental difference with what we do is that it will make money from day one whether we do sell hydrogen or whether we don’t sell hydrogen,” says White. “Selling the hydrogen just increases the profits exponentially. The gate fee and the electricity already makes it profitable.”

Where Next
In the short term the next step for the firm is to develop its first commercial scale plant.

“We’re working with Peel Environmental, which is a big supporter of what we’re doing, so we’re looking at accelerating the planning and permitting processes,” says Allaun. “We’re going to be breaking ground within months and ordering equipment. We’re hopeful we will see commercial operations this year on our first site. Having a commercial facility in operation is something that makes things a lot more attractive. There are going to be early adopters, there are going to be intermediate adopters and then there’s going to be a rapid aggressive adoption.”

White notes that there’s another side to the story – the car manufacturers.

“Companies like Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes, BMW – all of them want to get into fuel cell cars. So what’s the problem?” he asks. “Distributed hydrogen. There’s a €10 billion project in Germany for 400 filling stations, and that’s maybe going to break even in 2025 selling at €12-13 kg. We could do that at a fraction of the cost and be profitable from day one… just based on waste plastics, we could probably supply 25% of transport fuel.”

The company is exploring a number of opportunities with the potential to role as many as 100 systems from a production line each year. “We can offer a model that companies like Toyata are excited about,” says Allaun.

White adds that once the company has its first commercial plants operating, and it gets its message out that it is taking unrecyclable  plastics, tyres and other wastes to provide distributed hydrogen he expects demand for the system to rapidly grow.

“We don’t know whether it’s a three year J Curve or a seven year J Curve before there’s mass consumer adoption. In the mean time the system makes substatial profits from electric sales and gate fees,” he concludes.

A interview with Keith Aluun can be viewed below:

https://youtu.be/rJQ6JhpyqVI