Affordable fuel cells and green ammonia are part of a future circular fuel economy

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Fuel cells combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce energy have been in commercial usage since the 1960’s, when NASA and the Soviet space programme used the technology to power their spacecrafts and create water for their astronauts. The cost of producing and running them has meant that fuel cells have not been viable for use on an industrial scale, but efforts are under way to make this technology more accessible.

GenCell is one such company attempting to increase access to fuel cell energy solutions. Founded in 2011, they have also worked to pioneer methods of reducing the prohibitive costs preventing fuel cells from becoming a mainstream power production method.

There are two main reasons why fuel cells have not been readily available for the wider market, and both contribute to the enormously high cost of manufacturing and running them.

The first is that modern fuel cells are still made to specifications like those used in the space programme, using noble elements such as platinum which are extremely expensive to procure.

Secondly, the cost of hydrogen is very high because of the limitations present in today’s hydrogen infrastructure, restricting its use as a fuel for primary power.

To decrease the cost, GenCell have worked on reducing the number of noble metals and other expensive components needed to produce fuel cell catalysts. They have also developed a process that allows them to create hydrogen on demand from anhydrous ammonia (NH3), at ten times the efficiency of other solutions and without any outside electrical power.

Creating hydrogen from ammonia

The hydrogen is manufactured and utilised at on-site ‘nano’ plants, which operate 24 hours a day on clean power using ammonia as a fuel. They are also weather independent, unlike other green energy solutions, and are very reliable. Nano plants such as these have the added benefit of avoiding the complex logistical and cost challenges of transporting hydrogen, as well as the strict regulations limiting mass distribution of large quantities of ammonia.

Through their clean production process and ability to avoid the need to transport fuels, these facilities already comply with the UN’s target of net zero emissions, which has also been adopted by Japan, the European Union, and the United States among other countries.

In terms of application, GenCell says that this technology has the potential to provide affordable, clean backup power for the homeland security, healthcare, and automation industries, as well as off-grid or poor-grid telecoms and rural electrification projects, at a cost less than diesel solutions. 

Rami Reshef, CEO at GenCell, says that: “On one hand, you have the diesel giants and their 100-year-old technology dominating the market, and on the other you have new technology which offers a clean, reliable and much more affordable power. This is what we’re trying to bring to the market.”

Developing green ammonia

Although the energy that GenCell produces from ammonia is clean, green, and affordable, the team are far from resting on their laurels. Their next mission is to create a source of green ammonia.

Currently, ammonia is produced to meet the huge demand from the agriculture sector, which uses it in the manufacture of fertilisers. Other everyday synthetic products rely on the production of ammonia too, including pharmaceuticals, plastics, textiles, explosives, and other chemicals.

The main issue with the production of ammonia is that it consumes huge amounts of energy, creating a massive carbon footprint in the process. Hydrogen is used in large quantities in the manufacturing process, which is obtained from burning natural gas, coal, or oil – itself a process which produces large amounts of CO2.

In response to this, GenCell have teamed up with Japanese lithium-ion battery manufacturers TDK to develop a project aiming to produce green ammonia. To do this, water is used in the manufacturing process instead of methane (CH4), creating a self-sustained circular economy where the fuel is made and consumed at the point of use.

“The idea is to work with the catalysts we have already developed,” Reshef adds. “One to synthesise between hydrogen and nitrogen to create ammonia, and the other that will be employed in direct synthesis for H2O to NH3. This will be done at low temperature and low pressure.

“All other similar processes that exist today are based on high temperature fusion, whereas we have a focus on developing this through low temperature fusion. We have based this on the existing knowledge we have gained through the last ten years of research and development at GenCell.

“One of the biggest issues we face is keeping the temperature and pressure low during the process. Current processes use technology that aims to keep the temperature and pressure high, but that is incredibly costly. You need to use special catalysts and you need to invest in a lot of energy to maintain the pressure. It is a radical challenge to change the temperature and the pressure of already existing processes.”

Future markets for green ammonia

The potential market for green ammonia over the next decade is expected to grow by five times the current estimated value, from $70 billion to $350 billion. “I’m in discussion with different shipping companies right now that are retrofitting their diesel engines to work with ammonia,” Reshef continues.

“I think green ammonia could be an amazing energy storage solution, particularly energy that would otherwise go to waste from renewables. With solar, it is 15 to 20 per cent, and wind it is around 50 to 60 per cent. This is because it is not balanced with the demand and if you can take this unconsumed energy and store it as a fuel, you can then transport it and use it to generate other fuels for all sorts of things.

“It could be the ultimate way to store excess energy from renewables.”

To achieve this breakthrough, GenCell will need to be patient, and carry out extensive testing before a first proof of concept can be achieved. This process may take up to three years, during which time the research will encompass both controlled laboratory testing, and on-site testing at production scale.

Despite these challenges, Reshef remains confident that GenCell can produce what it hopes will be a revolutionary product in the race to provide reliable carbon neutral energy to the market. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. This is an incredibly challenging test, but the fact that TDK is confident that we can do it gives me more confidence that we can overcome the challenges along the way.”