AGH UST scientists develop low-emission technologies of hydrogen production

The picture shows the symbol of hydrogen surrounded by white hexagons and wind turbines. There are also words such as green, hydrogen, renewable energy, and power. Dominating colours are: blue and green. The background of the picture features the shape of planet Earth with continents.

Hydrogen is commonly recognised as the fuel of the future and can help reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. However, for hydrogen energetics to make sense, the production of H2 cannot be powered by energy from fossil fuels.

Reducing humanity’s carbon footprint is currently the most pressing and important challenge which the societies of both industrial and developing countries must face. To prevent rapid climate change, we should, among other things, try to reduce CO2 emission, a gas that contributes significantly to global warming. Its anthropogenic sources accompany primarily industrial processes that use fossil fuels, that is, hard coal, petroleum, and natural gas. A good alternative might be to use hydrogen as an energy carrier because its combustion products are only steam and heat. However, for hydrogen energetics, or broadly speaking hydrogen technologies, to make sense, production of H2 cannot be powered by energy from fossil fuels (both in the aspects of combustion and processing). The development of an efficient H2 production system using renewables is the objective of the consortium established by AGH UST, the Institute of Power Engineering, and the LOTOS SA Group. Engineers will attempt to make the production of this energy carrier more eco-friendly.

Mission: decarbonisation

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere has become one of the chief motives of the European energy transformation process. The means to achieving this goal might be to transfer to hydrogen, which is seen as the fuel of the future. This is what lies at the foundation of the Polish Hydrogen Strategy, which charts out the actions to be taken to bring a low-emission economy to life. According to this document, hydrogen can not only help to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement on counteracting climate change, but also increase the competitiveness of Poland in terms of new technologies. The achievement of climate neutrality in national industry, energy production, and transport must occur through the development of domestic slutions and patents. The aim is primarily to develop green and simultaneously efficient methods of high-purity hydrogen production.

Colours of hydrogen

There are numerous ways to produce hydrogen. Today, the most popular methods of sourcing this most fundamental element are steam reforming, partial oxidation of methane, and coal gasification. However, these are not environmentally friendly methods, because they are based on non-renewable energy sources, and one of the by-products of these processes is CO2. Due to the fact that CO2 emissions can be directly linked to the greenhouse effect, the conclusion must be to minimise them or even eliminate them entirely. This is why this type of methods produces the so-called grey, black, or brown hydrogen, depending on whether methane (natural gas), hard coal, or brown coal were used in the process. If a given technological solution captures carbon dioxide, which is later stored for later use, the H2 obtained in such a way receives a blue label. Not surprisingly, the most desired hydrogen colour is green.

The picture shows a transparent symbol of hydrogen against the veins of a luscious green leaf.Green hydrogen, which is practically zero-emission hydrogen, can be produced by electrolysis of water, that is, splitting H2O with the use of an external electric voltage. This method is almost entirely eco-friendly, on condition that the energy used in the process comes from renewables, for instance, solar, wind, or water energy. Today, none of the currently available electrolysis methods, including alkaline water electrolysis, low-temperature PEM cell electrolysis, or high-temperature electrolysis, has gained ground or been widely used. These methods are much more expensive and less effective in comparison to, for example, the steam reforming method. However, scientists are working to make the electrolysis process more efficient, stable, and cheaper. This is exactly the objective of engineers working within the framework of the scientific-implementation consortium, which is a joint initiative of the LOTOS SA Group, the Institute of Power Engineering, and the AGH UST represented by Professor Konrad Świerczek from the Faculty of Energy and Fuels.

‘Hydrogen is currently considered a very attractive energy carrier that can be the foundation for the energy transformation process. This element has very interesting physicochemical properties; some of them are highly desirable from the point of view of practical applications of H2. Moreover, hydrogen technologies seem to constitute an excellent complement to technologies based on renewables, levelling their negative sides, such as day/night or seasonal fluctuations in energy production from solar or wind farms. In the case of surplus solar energy, for instance, one could use it to produce hydrogen, that is, to transform electrical energy (which cannot be transferred to the grid) into chemical energy. Hence, the attempt to use renewables to produce hydrogen by means of high-temperature electrolysis’, claims Professor Konrad Świerczek, head of the team of researchers from the AGH UST.

Operation VETNI

The newly-established consortium received funding from the National Centre for Research and Development for the R&D project called VETNI, which is Icelandic for ‘hydrogen’. Its objective is to develop innovative solutions to produce this element by means of a solid oxide electrolyser (SOE), which will be powered by renewables and integrated with the existing industrial ducting delivering steam to the system. The activities encompass the development, construction, and industrial research of high-efficiency hydrogen production machinery which enables the reduction of energy input by about 30% in comparison to low-temperature electrolysers currently available on the market. It is estimated that the machine should be able to produce 16 kg of H2 in 24 hours, which would allow one to fuel several cars.

The foreground of the picture features a hydrogen dispenser with a blue inscription hydrogen. The background shows solar panels reflecting sunlight.VETNI has three significant ecological aspects. Firstly, it is crucial that the energy for powering the electrolyser will come from renewable sources; hence, the produced hydrogen will be green, leaving practically no carbon footprint. Secondly, the existing machinery in Jasło (Poland), which belongs to the LOTOS SA Group, will be used to construct the system. (LOTOS Infrastructure). The existing ducting is filled with steam, which will power the electrolyser. And thirdly, the engineers from the Faculty of Energy and Fuels and the Faculty of Materials Science and Ceramics will work to improve the anode material (oxide electrode of the electrolyser), also within the scope of reducing the use of toxic and quite expensive cobalt. Compounds typically used to construct the SOEs’ anode contain high amounts of this element. Therefore, the researchers will attempt to modify and refine the solid oxide electrolyser, developed earlier by the Institute of Power Engineering, which has been successfully applied in machinery delivered to the fuel and energy industry.

‘The leader in high-temperature electrolyser technology is the Institute of Power Engineering. In the solution developed by our Partner, there is the anode material, which contains cobalt, an element which is currently used scarcely in battery or fuel cell technologies. Of course, the structural solutions of the electrolyser will be fully exploited; however, we will change the oxide electrode material to one which should, firstly, increase the electrocatalytic activity and improve the long-lasting operational stability of the electrolyser, and secondly, facilitate the elimination of cobalt, which we do not wish to use. Our final destination is to reduce the amount of this toxic element by 50% minimum and replace it with the addition of environmentally neutral copper. Notably, the idea to use copper to modify the electrode materials came up in the doctoral dissertation of DSc Anna Niemczyk from the Faculty of Energy and Fuels, who is currently an employee of the Institute of Power Engineering. Thus, the interesting conclusions of the dissertation can find practical application and be part of the implementation’, says Professor Konrad Świerczek.

Practical applications

A huge advantage of the VENTI project, implemented within the framework of the consortium, is its prospective applications and the attempt to implement the developed machinery. The resulting high-purity green hydrogen could easily be used as fuel for vehicles or industrial machines. The project is also one of the first initiatives that aims to practically fulfil the postulates contained in the Polish Hydrogen Strategy. Thus, the AGH UST, as a leading technical university, fulfils its obligations to the economy by providing practical knowledge that has a significant influence on the dynamic technological progress. In particular, as Professor Konrad Świerczek emphasises, the project fits perfectly into the university’s strategy for sustainable development and the use of domestic technological solutions.

‘The primary objective of this project is to show that we can deliver low-emission methods for high-purity hydrogen production, and our Polish solutions work very well, both in terms of construction and materials. The unquestionable advantage of this project is also showing that – in my opinion, problem-free – fruitful cooperation between a research university, research institute, and a massive enterprise is possible’, comments Professor Konrad Świerczek.