Electrolyser Landscape: Technology trends, manufacturing and outlook

Technology trends, manufacturing and outlook

Green hydrogen is often termed as the fuel of the future. Given the rising co­ncerns for energy security globally, and the emerging issues on the gas pri­cing front, economies the world over are pushing the green hydrogen agenda. India has set a target of manufacturing 5 million ton­nes of green hydrogen per an­num by 2030. The country possesses a lar­ge dom­es­tic consumption base for gr­e­en hydrogen, taking into account the sheer size of industries such as fertilisers, refineries, po­wer and transport. Green hy­drogen can not only help decarbonise the­se sectors, but also help preserve assets by being ret­ro­fitted into existing infrastructure. Accor­ding to TERI, the demand for hydrogen is antici­pated to increase fivefold in 2050. How­ever, at present, the price range of hy­dro­gen is very high, starting from $7. The pri­ces vary not just for different technologies, but also for the same one, making the target of reaching $1 per kg greatly challenging. India seeks to build a robust do­mestic manufacturing ecosystem for green hydrogen. With innovation and economies of sc­ale, green hydrogen has the potential to be a highly competitive fuel in the market.

As per the International Renewable Ener­gy Agency, an increase in module size, su­p­p­­ort­ed by innovation, along with inc­rea­sed stack manufacturing can have significant impacts on cost. In 2020, a typical plant size was roughly 1 MW. However, as the industry is growing, increasing the pla­nt size to say, 20 MW could reduce cos­ts by over a third. The Council on Ener­gy, En­­­vi­­­ro­n­ment and Water also states that an agg­ressive reduction in the cost of elec­trolys­ers is the only way to reduce the cost of hy­drogen production to $3 per kg by 2030 and $2 per kg by 2040. Thus, in the coming years, deep focus on the develo­pment of efficient and optimal electrolyser desig­ns would play a key role in de­ter­mi­ning the success of India’s green hydrogen endeavour.

Electrolyser technologies

Hy­drogen can be produced from a wide va­riety of sources using appropriate prod­uc­tion methods. Historically, the produced hydrogen fuel has been utilised for a wide range of end-use applications in va­rious in­dustries. While in the past, ste­am reformation of natural gas and coal gasification have proven to be economical options for the production of hydrogen, the rising em­phasis on clean energy targets has shifted the attention towards production of hydrogen through electrolysis in order to produce clean and green hydrogen. Electro­lysis is the electrochemical process of us­ing electricity to break down water into hy­dro­gen and oxygen. An electrolyser uses this process to produce hydrogen. Elec­tro­lysers can be scaled to meet a variety of input and output ranges, starting from small-scale plants to large-scale centra­li­sed facilities. The average capacity of ele­c­­trolyser projects has inc­re­a­sed tremendously over the past decade. From primarily 1 MW scale projects in the 2010s, projects in the 10-20 MW and 100 MW ranges are now being adopted acro­ss the world. At present, there are two typ­es of electrolysers that are commercially available – alkaline and proton-exchange me­mbrane (PEM) electrolysers. Other technologies in nascent stages of deve­lop­ment include an­ion exchange membr­ane, solid-oxide el­e­c­trolyser cell, protonic ceramic electrochemical cell and photoelectrochemical (PEC) water splitting. A few of these nas­cent technologies are also being tested at facilities on a pilot basis.

Alkaline electrolysers are relatively economical but provide limited operational fl­e­xi­bility, as they have larger area footpri­nts and low output pressure. PEM electrolysers use solid polymer electrolytes whi­ch enable compact and higher effici­ency systems than in alkaline electrolyse­rs. These electrolysers have a more rapid response to changes in power and provi­de a physical barrier between the pro­du­ced hydrogen and oxygen. PEM el­e­ctro­lysers also have certain other advantages, as can they work above capacity for short periods, occupy smaller footpri­nts, and deliver hydrogen at a higher output pressure. However, the capital cost as­sociated with them is very high as they use preci­o­us metals as catalysts.

Solid oxide electrolysers are also under development at present. A significant part of the energy needed to split water is thermal rather than electrical. Because of this, the overall electrical energy required in these electrolysers is lower. Increasing the lifetime of the electrode has been the fo­cus of research for this technology. Alka­line anion-exchange membrane systems provide membrane separation and use cheap and abundant materials. PEC wa­ter splitting is another emerging technology. It utilises solar energy for the electrolysis of water, and offers the potential for high conversion efficiency at low operating temperatures using cost-effective se­miconductor materials. However, the te­ch­nology is under development and not yet commercially viable.

Developments in the market

Given the rising impetus on green hydrogen in the country, the electrolyser market has witnessed developments in the form of various collaborations and projects in recent months. In April 2022, Greenko ZeroC, a subsidiary of Greenko Group, and John Cockerill, a Belgium-based ma­n­u­facturer of high-capacity alkaline electrolysers, partnered for a 50:50 joint venture to set up a 2 GW green hydrogen el­ectrolyser giga-factory in India. The proje­ct is aimed at substituting 8 per cent of India’s LNG imports. The facility will be es­ta­blished on the east coast with a planned investment outlay of $500 million. Pursu­ing its research and development (R&D) efforts, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) signed an ag­reement with the Indian Institute of Te­ch­nology Bombay, the country’s premi­er technology and research institution, to collaborate on green hydrogen value ch­ain research and the development of next-generation technology in this emerging fi­eld. At the beginning of 2022, L&T also signed an MoU with the Norwegian co­m­pany HydrogenPro AS for a joint venture to manufacture GW-scale alkaline wa­­ter electrolysers. The electrolysers will utilise HydrogenPro’s technology for the Indian market and other select regions.

Recently, Oil India Limited completed the development of India’s only pure green hydrogen pilot facility in Jorhat, Assam, with an installed capacity of 10 kg per day. The facility manufactures green hydrogen utilising a 100 kW anion exchange membrane electrolyser array. The technology is being used for the first time in India, and utilises electricity produced by an existing 500 kW solar plant. NTPC Renewable Energy has also issued a notice for upco­ming invitations for bids for selection of electrolyser technology providers for participation in green hydrogen tenders. The selected providers will be required to support NTPC in bids for various tenders, including either 400 MW PEM-based projects or 600 MW non-PEM-based projects. Gas Authority of India Limited has also issued a global tender for the procu­rement of an electrolyser to construct In­dia’s largest green hydrogen-making fa­cility to bolster its natural gas operations with carbon-free fuel.

In February 2022, Ohmium International, a company specialising in the design, manufacture, and deployment of PEM Electro­ly­s­ers, and India’s CSIR-Central Electro­ch­­e­mical Research Institute (CSIR-CECRI), Ka­raikudi, entered into a three ye­­ar agreement whereby Ohmium will sp­o­­nsor CSIR-CECRI’s research into new materials to support next generation electrolyser technology. Previously, Ohmium International had partnered with IIT Mad­ras Research Park for performance and cost improveme­nts in its PEM electrolysers, aimed at en­ha­n­cing the perform­an­ce outcome of Ohmi­um’s electrolyser giga-fa­ctory in Bengalu­ru. Ohmium laun­ch­ed India’s first green hydrogen electrolyser giga-factory through its Indian subsidiary in August 2021. The gi­gafactory primarily aims to manufacture PEM hydrogen electrolysers. The initial manufacturing capacity of the factory will be 500 MW per year, with a scale-up target of 2 GW per year. Furthermore, in January 2022, Hero Future Energies and Ohmium Inter­national also entered into a strategic collaboration to develop and build 1,000 MW of green hydrogen production facilities in India, the UK and Europe.

To reduce India’s dependence on electrolyser imports, Bharat Petroleum Corpora­tion Limited (BPCL) partnered with Bha­bha Atomic Research Centre to scale up alkaline electrolyser technology for the generation of green hydrogen. In Novem­ber 2021, BPCL also announced plans to build In­dia’s largest green hydrogen pla­nt. A ten­de­r for a 20 MW electrolyser, to be set up at its refinery in Bina, Madhya Pra­de­sh will be released. In October 2021, Re­liance Ind­us­tri­es announced its plans to generate 400,000 tonnes of hydrogen through the use of about 3 GW of solar energy at its pro­­posed electrolyser giga-factory in Jam­nagar. The electrolyser factory is one of four giga-factories planned by Reliance in Gujarat.

The way forward

Producing green hydrogen through electrolysers comes with its own challenges. The levelised cost of green hydrogen production is estimated to be around two ti­mes that of grey/black hydrogen. A transition from grey to green hydrogen in industries would also entail significant investments in the initial stages, especially in R&D of electrolyser technologies. Another key challenge is the use of scarce materials in PEM electrolysers, which further inc­re­ases costs. Thus, understanding the per­formance of different electrolysers and finding the best fit is crucial.

An extension of production-linked incentives for electrolyser manufacturing has be­­en suggested to promote domestic pro­­duction. Subsidies for manufacturers, fin­ancing mechanisms, and creation of de­mand through purchase and bundling obligations in city gas can also provide the necessary boost to the sector. An ag­g­ressive deployment of electrolyser technologies can go a long way in improving the competitiveness of green hydrogen as the fuel of the future.

By Kasvi Singh