Spanish consortium wants to simplify hydrogen production through photoelectrocatalysis


From pv magazine Spain

After almost a decade of work, a team of researchers from Spanish energy companies Repsol and Enagás has managed to develop a pioneering technology for the production of renewable hydrogen from the direct use of solar energy in a process known as photoeletrocatalysis.

The consortium launched the first proof of concept of a photoelectrochemical cell, of no more than 1 cm2, in November 2020 and has now installed the 1 m2 pilot plant at the Repsol Technology Lab, in Móstoles. The next step will be the construction of a demonstration plant in the industrial complex that Repsol has in Puertollano, in central Spain, with the aim of reaching commercial maturity before 2030, the oil company said in a statement.

Both companies have created a joint venture that is intended to bring other investment partners into the project.

Ana Martínez, a researcher at Repsol Technology Lab and one of the project leaders, highlighted the role that hydrogen will play as a key energy vector in decarbonization. “It will allow, on the one hand, to store renewable energies on a large scale, and, on the other, use it as fuel in different sectors, such as mobility, in the residential and industrial fields and, also, as a raw material in industry,” she stated, noting that the electrolysis had not yet reached a sufficient level of competitiveness.

The project is a 100% Spanish R&D development, led by women and carried out in collaboration with several of the most prestigious hydrogen research centers in the country.

This technology simplifies the production process with respect to electrolysis, currently the most widely used technology for the generation of renewable hydrogen. This renewable electricity is transported to an electrolyzer where the water molecule is separated into hydrogen and oxygen. Photoelectrocatalysis, however, integrates the process in a single step. “The device receives solar radiation directly and with a photoactive material it generated the electrical charges that cause this separation”, explained Repsol researcher María Dolores Hernández.

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With this alternative, the losses associated with the transport and transformation of electricity are avoided, which means that the photoelectrocatalysis technology improves the solar-to-hydrogen efficiency. This simplification in infrastructure and equipment will also reduce investments in this technology, which also has the great advantage of not depending on the price of electricity. “The project's roadmap is designed so that, in 2030, the gas generated by this technology can compete in costs both with that produced by conventional processes from natural gas, and with that obtained by electrolysis”, continued Hernández .

The Energy Research Institute of Catalonia, the Institute of Electrochemistry of the University of Alicante, the Hydrogen Foundation of Aragon and the engineering company Magrana are involved in the project. “The initiative is led on both sides by women, both the technical team and the business development team,” said Enagás researcher Mónica Sánchez. “In this sense, the project shows a commitment to female researchers and is a clear example of the change in recent years in our role in large technological projects within the business world.”

The plan to reach the industrial and economic maturity of this technology has two additional scaling stages defined: A demonstrator that will start up in 2024 in Puertollano, with an area close to half a hectare and with a production of 100 kg a day of renewable hydrogen; and a final phase, scheduled for 2028, with the installation, also in Puertollano, of a plant, already in the industrial phase, of about 60 hectares and with planned production of up to 10 t a day.

Both companies are incorporating renewable hydrogen into their respective businesses. At Repsol, it will be applied both in its industrial refining and chemical processes.

Repsol and Enagás, which have so far invested €8 million in the development of the project, have proprietary rights to the technology, which has resulted in 65 patent applications in more than 30 countries around the world.

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