How can we store excess renewable electricity? ‘Via chemistry!’ answers the team of Prof. Joris Proost. Beginning in April, thanks to funding from the European Horizon 2020 programme, Louvain School of Engineering researchers will work for two years on a water electrolysis industrial prototype for storing energy via green hydrogen.
It's no secret that the production of renewable energy depends significantly on the weather conditions in a given place and/or at a given time. Wind turbines sometimes generate more energy than they should, and the amount of sunshine occasionally exceeds our energy needs. The challenge is storing this energy in order to distribute it in a balanced manner and at the right time. Could batteries meet this challenge? Not on an industrial gigawatt scale. Their storage capacity is limited, they’re expensive, and their negative impact on the environment is too great. So Prof. Proost’s team at the UCLouvain Materials and Process Engineering Division decided to work on hydrogen as an alternative for storing green electricity through the chemical process of water electrolysis.
‘Materials for Next Generation Alkaline Electrolysers’ (NextAEC) is a Horizon 2020 European project of scientific excellence (see below). It answers the call for proposals for meeting environmental challenges in industry (‘Industrial Sustainability’). In particular, the team intends to propose innovative equipment for clean energy (‘Clean Energy through Innovative Materials’). More precisely, the proposed equipment addresses the problem of storing energy by means other than batteries (Materials for non-battery based energy storage).
Hydrogen: the (almost) ideal candidate
As we explained a few months ago, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It would therefore be the ideal candidate for energy production or storage. Unfortunately, nature sometimes isn’t fair: hydrogen isn’t present on earth in its molecular form (H2). It must be extracted from molecules that contain it, such as methane (CH4) or water (H2O). Extraction processes require a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases. As Prof. Proost told us a few months ago, ‘The hydrogen produced today by the usual processes is not at all “green”, because eight tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for every tonne of H2 produced!’ That’s why it’s called ‘black hydrogen’.
Greening the chemical industry
The good news is that green hydrogen exists and has the considerable advantage of allowing large-scale deployment of renewable energy. ‘Currently we’re producing 1,500 gigawatts of renewable energy worldwide’, Prof. Proost says. ‘In 2050, it’ll be 10 times more. And to store this energy, batteries aren’t enough, unlike hydrogen.’ The method of producing green hydrogen is two-centuries-old, and a lesson from our school days: water electrolysis uses an electrical current to break down water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). This electrochemical process converts excess energy from renewables into hydrogen via chemistry by transforming electricity into hydrogen using water electrolysis. The catch is that its industrialisation is expensive. ‘Via the usual process,’ Prof. Proost says, ‘hydrogen costs €2 per kilo. It costs twice that via electrolysis.’
Competitive green hydrogen production
The H2020-funded project led by Prof. Proost and his team intends to address how to make green hydrogen production competitive. The team already has experience in the field given the completion of a PhD thesis on the subject ten years ago. Thanks to promising conclusions and Walloon Region funding, UCLouvain was able to buy a water electrolysis pilot facility, taking research from the laboratory to a semi-industrial scale. ‘With the H2020 programme, we want to take a step further towards the industrial prototype,’ Prof. Proost explains. To achieve this, his team is working on an intelligent electrode manufacturing process. ‘The electrodes are three-dimensional. We want to exploit their hitherto unexploited third dimension to increase the productivity of these processes and produce more hydrogen with the same number of electrodes.’ How? Using innovative technologies such as 3D printers. ‘But that’ll be when we have managed to reduce the cost of storing hydrogen.’
Collaborating with Europe’s best
A few months before the project’s launch, Prof. Proost realizes the chance of having received a positive response to the H2020 project: ‘We were first lucky to receive local funding in the Walloon Region to finance a single semi-industrial facility and demonstrate its value. Thanks to this, other European research teams came to us for our specific skills. These kinds of European projects are a significant asset for our students and researchers. Isn't it motivating to know that by working in a laboratory you’ll be approached by academics and industrialists from all over Europe to collaborate on a fascinating subject like ours?’ Within two years at the latest, Prof. Proost intends to launch a spin-off at UCLouvain to test electrolysis units that run on green electricity.
Horizon 2020 research and innovation
Horizon 2020 (H2020) is the largest research and innovation programme ever carried out by the European Union. Participation in H2020 is open to researchers worldwide. With total funding of €80 billion over seven years (2014-20), the programme aims for Europe to achieve a world-class level of scientific and technological expertise, eliminate obstacles hindering innovation, and facilitate collaboration between the public and private sectors, in order to find solutions to the major challenges facing society.
A glance at Joris Proost's bio
After earning his master’s degree in civil engineering in metallurgy and materials science at KU Leuven in 1994, Joris Proost completed his PhD in applied sciences at the same university and at the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC). His postdoctoral journey took him to Harvard University. He returned to Belgium in 2003, climbing the academic ladder in the Louvain School of Engineering to become adjunct professor (2017). In general, his research focuses on the reactivity of metals and their oxides in different environments, with particular attention paid to sustainable processes in electrochemistry. Since 2015, Prof. Proost is Belgium’s representative to the Hydrogen Technology Collaboration Program (TCP) of the International Energy Agency (IEA).