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Interview: Enapter aims to disrupt H2 market with modular electrolyzers

Highlights

Plans to build scale like modular solar PV

Lower capex, opex than PEM electrolyzers

New plant to build 280 MW/year from 2023

Electrolyzer start-up Enapter has low-cost renewable hydrogen production in its sights that is cheaper than incumbent technologies, the company's head of strategy Thomas Chrometzka told S&P Global Platts July 29.

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Enapter's anion exchange membrane (AEM) technology can deliver lower capex and opex costs, Chrometzka said in an interview, with the company is drawing on business models from solar sector, manufacturing modular AEM electrolyzer units that can be stacked together to achieve large-scale production.

The materials involved in its AEM modules are cheaper than those required for the more common proton exchange membrane electrolyzers, using steel rather than titanium in its bipolar plates.

PEM bipolar plates are usually titanium "because PEM stacks have a very acidic environment," Chrometzka said. Enapter uses a highly diluted alkaline solution with 1% potassium hydroxide concentration, which it can handle with steel, he said.

Chrometzka said the AEM cell setup was simpler than an alkaline electrolyzer.

That, combined with high efficiencies similar to PEM technology, allowed Enapter to build "a very compact electrolyzer that is easy to install and handle and has very low opex cost," he said.

Disruptive technology

The AEM technology is similar to a PEM electrolyzer, but the membrane in the unit conducts negatively charged anions, rather than protons.

On costs, Enapter says its technology at scale can save around $310/kW compared to PEM costs of about $800/kW, the average figure the International Renewable Energy Agency gives for PEM.

The savings come largely from its cheaper bipolar plates in the electrolyzer stack ($20/kW, as opposed to $190/kW for an average PEM stack), plus lower operating costs for power of $80/kW through the use of standardized supplies, compared with $220/kW for an average PEM plant, Enapter said.

It sees a disruptive future for its small 2.4 kW modules, drawing on the way that solar PV panels have developed over the last 20 years.

"The main frame got disrupted by the PC," Chrometzka said. "Today, all data centers are made of PC components. The energy industry got disrupted by a modular, scalable device: the solar panel. We think the commodification at scale will yield faster cost reductions" than building ever-larger electrolyzers, he said.

Enapter modular AEM EL 2.1 electrolyzer

Hydrogen production
0.5 cu m/hour
Efficiency
4.8 kWh/cu m H2
Hydrogen purity
99.9%
Power consumption
2.4 kW

Source: Enapter

Scaling production

The company is designing and building a prototype megawatt-scale facility, combining 420 stacks in its "Multicore" container unit to produce around 450 kg/day of hydrogen, which should be completed by the end of 2021.

Chrometzka said larger-scale projects were possible with Enapter's technology, although it was not a primary focus of the company for now. Indeed Enapter sees the potential for future demand to gravitate towards smaller-scale applications, as decentralized power production and demand grows.

"Energy systems are becoming more decentralized," he said, noting the potential for 1-10 kW units for appliance-level technology as consumers become small-scale producers of power and potentially renewable gas in the form of hydrogen.

Enapter sees multiple use cases for its product, from energy storage, transport, industry, and even the food industry, with customers approaching the company who are using hydrogen to feed protein-producing bacteria.

"We see green hydrogen as a commodity that will go way beyond the energy sector and we want to be able to service it all," Chrometzka said.

Cost reductions

UK-based Ceres Power is also developing another less established production route, expanding its solid oxide fuel cell technology to electrolyzers. The company is targeting green hydrogen production at below $1.50/kg by 2025.

Chrometzka said Enapter had a similar target in sight, though emphasized that low power costs were the key driver of renewable hydrogen prices.

S&P Global Platts assessed the cost of producing renewable hydrogen via alkaline electrolysis in Europe at Eur5.31/kg ($6.32/kg) July 29 (Netherlands, including capex). PEM electrolysis production was assessed at Eur6.57/kg, while blue hydrogen production by steam methane reforming (including carbon, CCS and capex) was Eur3.04/kg.

The company, founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Sebastian-Justus Schmidt, had grown to 165 employees as of May 2021, with 166 customers in 40 countries. It targets 10% of the global hydrogen production market by 2050.

Enapter has a factory in Pisa, Italy, but plans to scale up production in Germany, receiving Eur5.6 million ($6.7 million) in funding from the German government at the start of July for development of its megawatt-scale Multicore electrolyzer units at its mass-production and R&D site in Saerbeck.

The company aims to move into the facility by the end of 2022, with production ramping up from 2023, producing 10,000 electrolyzer units a month to reach a total of 280 MW/year, from 2.5 MW/year now.

Chrometzka said there was plenty of capacity at Saerbeck, but said its decentralized product could easily be assembled at facilities globally in the future, local to demand centers.

Chicken and egg

Chrometzka said that while good regulation and a level playing field with incumbent fossil fuel producers would help the industry develop, it was important for renewable hydrogen companies to take responsibility themselves.

"The hydrogen industry often speaks of the chicken and the egg problem," he said. "We don't see that problem. We see the market starting when green hydrogen is really cheap."

"Who can make clean hydrogen cheap?" Chrometzka added. "The electrolyzer manufacturers. We can't do it alone, but we're the first in the food chain. With cheap green hydrogen, everybody else is enabled."