In this interview, Dave Wolff from Nel Hydrogen talks to AZoM about the benefits of on-site hydrogen generation for a range of research and industrial uses.
What are the main uses of hydrogen in industry?
Hydrogen serves many uses in industry based on its unique chemical and physical properties. Some examples:
- As a chemical feedstock for use as a reducing agent to stabilize oils and to modify the properties of petrochemicals and specialty chemicals
- As a reducing atmosphere in thermal treatment involving metals such as heat treating, sintering, brazing, float glass manufacturing etc.
- As a high heat, clean fuel gas in applications involving glass melting and fabrication, and thermal spray coatings
- As a protective carrier gas in semiconductor fabrication, crystal growth, and CVD coatings application
- As a fill gas for hydrogen-cooled electric generators - pure, low density hydrogen safely improves the efficiency of electric production
- In hydrogen/nitrogen blends as a lower cost, high performance, environmentally advantageous alternative to helium for leak checking
Hydrogen is one of the highest volume chemicals used in industry worldwide based on its remarkable diversity of applications. Interestingly, applications for hydrogen span the usage range from hundreds of millions of standard cubic feet per day in refineries to just a few standard cubic feet per day for specialty crystal growth and leak checking.
The vast range in usage range means a diversity of supply approaches to suit. Nel’s hydrogen generators serve a portion of the market corresponding to small to medium-sized users.
What are the main problems with hydrogen storage/delivery for these applications?
Hydrogen has several characteristics that complicate delivery and storage:
- The widest flammability range of all substances (4% to 75% in air)
- Extremely low ignition energy
- The capability to leak from the tiniest openings
These characteristics cause hydrogen to be classified as a highly hazardous material, meaning that delivery and storage are highly regulated. In general, the more hydrogen that is stored, the farther distance must be allowed between the hydrogen storage and other site operations - meaning that significant hydrogen storage takes a lot of site space.
As a result, the highest volume hydrogen applications (primarily as a chemical feedstock) have always employed an on-site hydrogen generation approach – making hydrogen as it is needed, to avoid the need for hydrogen storage.
Nel’s breakthrough is to make the on-site hydrogen generation approach cost-effective at small and medium scale, and for more challenging load patterns.
Nel's hydrogen generators use Proton Exchange Membrane technology, offering high purity and variable-rate hydrogen production.
How do Nel's solutions differ from conventional hydrogen generation?
The hydrocarbon-based hydrogen generation technology used to supply hydrogen as a chemical feedstock is well-suited to very large, constant use, relatively low purity hydrogen needs on a large site with specialty employees dedicated only to the hydrogen generation unit.
These large systems make hydrogen very cost-effectively using available hydrocarbon feedstock. Large capacity hydrocarbon-based hydrogen generators cannot load-follow efficiently, require large land areas and dedicated staff. They make hydrogen at a fairly constant rate, so that hydrogen can be used for chemical processing at the same rate.
Nel Hydrogen has developed Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) based water electrolysis hydrogen generators that provide similar operational, safety and economic advantages to small and medium-sized, variable use rate, high purity customers who may operate less than 24/7, and who want a system that is plug-and-play and set-and-forget – all the hydrogen they need, when needed.
Nel’s hydrogen generators make small to medium flow rates of extremely pure hydrogen at relatively high pressures, and are able to vary production rates to suit customers’ needs – hence near-zero inventory hydrogen supply, in a format that meets the specific requirements of this large group of customers.
Within the Nel customer base, what is the balance between large volume applications like energy or materials processing vs small scale analytical use?
Nel sells fewer large hydrogen generators, but they are higher value. Industrial applications make up a large proportion of Nel’s hydrogen generator revenue. We offer customers a cost-effective, safety-driven, process-beneficial hydrogen supply approach.
Are there reasons someone would opt to use cylinders rather than a hydrogen generator?
On-site hydrogen generators solve problems for many customers – stable and reasonable product cost, space utilization for storage and safety buffer, high purity hydrogen at a lower cost, pressurized hydrogen when that is particularly valuable. Some customers do not experience these issues, hence they might choose delivered, stored hydrogen in cylinders or via another approach. Examples:
- Temporary or portable hydrogen needs
- Hydrogen needs that can be met with very low purity gas
- Customers that use hydrogen intermittently or who have a limited working schedule
- Hydrogen needs that are widely variable
Can you give an example where a H2 generator helped a customer do something they couldn’t do before?
Nel is fortunate in that we have a lot of these stories where we helped someone accomplish something that was virtually impossible before. One example is the case of Boston University Photonic Center.
This high rise academic fab facility is located in downtown Boston MA USA and has labs located on upper floors. They were forbidden to store hydrogen in upper floor labs and instead had to pipe hydrogen through the entire building from cylinders located in a basement bunker.
As they added additional hydrogen-using processes, the safety risks, personnel burden and amount of hydrogen storage required became untenable.
Nel’s hydrogen generation allows BU Photonic Center to use all of the high purity hydrogen needed without ever dealing with hydrogen delivery or storage.
Nel's new M Series megawatt-class hydrogen generators have a modular design, allowing for a huge range of large-scale projects.
In the near future, do you think the demand for hydrogen generation will grow? What sectors will drive this?
We at Nel are seeing attractive growth in the demand for hydrogen generation. A large part of our job is educating users in the full range of benefits possible through on-site generation, and that education process is ongoing.
We are fortunate in that we have an ever-increasing base of loyal users who are willing reference accounts. Nel now has hydrogen generators operating in customers in 70+ countries and every continent on the globe.
Are there any future developments for Nel’s hydrogen generation products you can tell us about?
In addition to the many applications where hydrogen is used as an industrial chemical or ingredient, hydrogen is also poised to play an expanding role in energy applications such as hydrogen-fueled vehicles and hydrogen-based energy storage to extend and expand the capability of renewable wind and solar electric generation.
Nel has announced the development of our M-series megawatt class hydrogen generators to serve these enormous opportunities.
About Dave Wolff
Dave Wolff has over 35 years of project engineering, industrial gas generation and application engineering, marketing and sales experience. He has been a Sales and Marketing leader for Nel Hydrogen since 1999, responsible for sales management in the Eastern USA region.
Dave has an extensive background in hydrogen generation at large and small scale, hydrogen distribution, storage and industrial utilization, and has application knowledge across a diverse range of industries.
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