Enapter’s hydrogen electrolyser technology recently showcased at the Nongnooch Tropical Garden in Pattaya, Thailand, is a promising alternative energy storage solution that does not rely on burning fossil fuels.

Many of the concerning environmental issues that we are currently facing are a result of how humans have been producing and storing energy over the past centuries. While most electrical energy is still produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, natural gas, and other gases, a growing amount of researchers and companies worldwide are now focusing their efforts on the development of greener and more sustainable solutions for generating and storing energy.

Enapter, who is among these companies, specializes in the design and manufacturing of highly efficient and modular hydrogen generators that are based on a process known as anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolysis. Over the past few years, it has released a unique range of low-cost and compact hydrogen electrolysers, which are all based on the same core technology.

Electrolysers are tools that use an anode and cathode to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. This process can generate a zero-carbon fuel supply, as the hydrogen produced by the technology has no carbon footprint.

Electrolysers manufactured by Enapter are already used internationally in a variety of settings, including in agriculture, academia, and telecommunications. The company’s ultimate mission is that of paving the way for a greener future, by delivering a highly efficient, low-cost and viable alternative to the highly polluting methods that are still widely used for the production of energy.

Recently, Enapter has showcased its technology at the Nongnooch Tropical Botanical Garden, a 600-acre scientific research center in Pattaya, Thailand. This implementation was ultimately designed to highlight the viability of hydrogen as a viable energy storage solution that does not rely on the local grid and the burning of fossil fuels.

Sebastian-Justus Schmidt is the founder of Enapter. He has also been Chairman of the company for almost three years now. Before that, he covered important managerial roles at a number of other tech companies, including CNX Creative, SPB TV, and Yandex. He is also the founder of mobile software company SPB Software, as well as of Phi Suea House, a project aimed at designing sustainable residences that are fully powered by solar energy and hydrogen.

In this interview with Electronics Point, Schmidt talks about the huge value that hydrogen electrolyser technology, such as the one manufactured by Enapter, could have in paving the way towards greener and more sustainable energy solutions.

Enapter chairman Sebastian-Justus Schmidt.

Ingrid Fadelli: Let’s start with an introduction to the hydrogen electrolyser technology developed by Enapter. How does it function and what impact does it have on the tech field?

Sebastian-Justus Schmidt: Electrolysis uses direct electric current (DC) to drive a chemical reaction that separates H2O elements. Inside the electrolyser, an electrolytic cell splits the H (hydrogen) from the O (oxygen). This is a known principle and existing systems on the market can be categorized into two different technologies: alkaline and PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) electrolysers. Both technologies have advantages and disadvantages. Enapter’s technology sits in between: we combine the best of both worlds and manufacture a scalable, relatively easy to build electrolyser. This is due to our AEM (Anion Exchange Membrane) technology. Electrolysis is increasingly considered a solution for a green energy future. However, in order for it to be implemented on a large scale, its price and complexity must decrease. With the AEM electrolyser we hold the key to achieving this.

Could you briefly outline your role at Enapter and your contribution or involvement in developing the technology?

I come from the software industry, in which I worked hard and had a lot of luck in my past. I was lucky to always be very early in some specific technologies. I was even more lucky to always find extremely gifted co-workers and partners. I served as CTO of one of the largest media software companies for radio and TV automation in Europe. I later worked with the standardization body DVD Forum when people still believed that tape machines would survive because of their better sound. I was building one of the first companies for mobile software when people explained to me that no one would ever put a cent into this industry. As the CEO of SPB Software (my former colleagues are Vassili Philippov now CEO at MELScience and Yaroslav Goncharov CEO at FaceApp) we were quite successful. When we had the first application that offered a finger-friendly UI for a smartphone (Pocket PC at this time!) people were concerned that the screen would get when touching it with your finger. Just a few months later Apple’s iPhone launched – and no one complained.

I sold this company to Yandex in 2011, the Russian technology leader and in many ways, at least in technology, is on par with Google. In my free time, I started to design the family house in Northern Thailand. As guests in Thailand, we wanted to build something completely recyclable. We put more than 100KW solar panels on our roofs and I bought a hydrogen system prototype from a small Italian company (ACTA spa) at the beginning of 2014. The company went bankrupt twice. After a failed takeover, I saw the opportunity of these systems and bought the company in November 2017.

My son Jan-Justus who started early with hydrogen and green technology is today the active COO. The entire team, from the early founding activities to today, did well. We started with 11 employees and we have now about 78 people. It is a great team with technology and visionary strength. Today the R&D and all other departments are growing fast. I managed to not be involved in day-to-day activities and focus on strategic work. My big task right now is to establish an effective advisory board.

How is electricity involved in this technology (i.e. what is/are its electrical component/s)?

The electrolyser needs electricity to produce hydrogen – and water. So our “hydrogen generators” effectively transform electricity into the energy carrier hydrogen. This opens a wide range of applications.

The hydrogen microgrid technology demonstrated in Nong Nooch Garden in Chonburi, Thailand.

How can electrolysers be used to produce renewable energy or other types of electricity?

Hydrogen produced with electrolyzers makes most sense if wind and solar or other renewable energy sources are being used. We are facing a crazy global challenge: We need more energy, we want mobility to be electric, we want to replace all fossil fuel, but nobody wants more electric wires or transmission systems next to their home. Moreover, we start to realize that power is not the only form of energy we should consider. Roughly a third of global energy use comes in the form of electricity, the rest is going for heating, cooling, transportation, and industry. In the energy sector, the differentiation between “electrons” and “molecules” and their decarbonization pathways becoming more important. If we really want to make a big splash in decarbonizing our world we need hydrogen. It is the only form of energy that can scale decarbonized fuels and gases. Hydrogen can use the existing gas networks and blends in easily. Hydrogen enables the efficient coupling of the electricity with the heating and transport sectors. The UK has some great examples to show also Germany is coming in strong. While in Europe 5% to 10% of hydrogen blend is typically allowed, Singapore is leapfrogging with around 40%.

How did Enapter showcase its technology at the Nongnooch Tropical Botanical Garden a few weeks ago and how did people attending the event respond to the demonstration?

It was a big event. The goal was to show a microgrid setting that can be fully powered by solar. No fossil fuels needed. Hydrogen was used to replace the diesel generator. We had guests from all over the world and sadly had to reject several applications from participants. We installed solar panels to have a real microgrid environment. The showcased energy solution contained equipment from different vendors SMA, Enapter, Plug Power, analog and digital sensors.

In the Enapter network, each component is built to operate independently to solve its task – producing solar, charging the battery or making electricity from hydrogen. We showcased that it is possible to integrate the different components into a unified system operating with a defined customer-driven logic. This was driven by Enapter’s software-defined Energy Management System consisting of several on-site components, the Enapter Cloud and end-user applications.

On-site components such as the IoT Universal Communication Module and Gateway enable the translation of communications protocols from different devices and manufacturers. Everyone, who is used to build microgrids has suffered here. We connect all devices into a unified energy network where different components speak to each other and control each other with defined logic. Most impressive for our audience was when we visualized the data in the Enapter Cloud and analyzed in real-time with machine learning algorithms for issues analysis and performance tuning. We are still at the beginning, but people told us that they haven’t seen this anywhere before.

The integrators also loved the setup procedure of a complete system in only a few easy steps by scanning QR codes located on each component. The system allows the to monitor and  control devices and receive alerts about issues with push notifications. The entire workshop was designed to be very Hands-On. Little talking, much action. Some people told us that this was the best event they ever visited. This gave us a big push.

What was the main goal of Enapter in showcasing its technology at this particular event? And what does this demonstration tell us about the future of energy storage?

When people hear of microgrids and independent energy systems they fear complexity even more than high prices. Our goal was to showcase that these things are manageable. Even though the electrolyzers is only one component in the system, it is also the most expensive single part (today). We will make this component much cheaper and start building acceptance and raising awareness for this today. We also believe that all other manufacturers should understand the magnitude of the impact that this technology is going to have. The future is hydrogen.

How do you think the electrolyzer affects the electronics engineering industry?

It will have a big effect.  All modern electronic devices have modular and complex designs. Our devices are no exception.

For our system, we design different digital electronic components such as an electrolyzer and dryer, control units, IoT Universal Communication Modules, and a Gateway, which are based on MCU or CPU from vendors like Intel, Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Espressif. We don’t design this common MCU – we relay our boards on reference designs from vendors. In the end, our final products are based on those electronic components manufactured to solve specific functions: hydrogen generation, data management, and connectivity as a turn-key solution with defined inputs and outputs. Software is the key to operate and monitor performance. It provides a real-time operation system using common protocols like REST HTTP/HTTPS, MQTT, Modbus and OPC/UA. This approach provides third-party engineers reference designs and open tools for building custom applications that are relying on our technologies.  The main point we focus on to make the technology available to a maximum of users: simplicity.

Could the technology developed by Enapter be a viable alternative to more traditional methods to produce electrical energy? If yes, what would its advantages be over current methods?

With an increased share of variable electricity generation, there is more need to make this electricity usable. Producing hydrogen is one suitable way that makes a lot of sense. The best approach to store energy is close to the place where it is consumed. With renewable energy, this is often in the periphery of the energy networks. Imagine how the energy system would change if more energy produced in the periphery (by solar and wind) is stored onsite and able to couple all sectors. A fully decentralized system develops and change could be massive.. However – this will only happen if hydrogen generation costs will further decrease. We are working on it!

How was the microgrid showcased at the event powered by the hydrogen electrolyzer technology?

We designed and implemented a microgrid with the same parts and the connection scheme that one would use to build a residential energy system. Electrical components such as wires, switches, and breakers were purchased in nearby stores. PV panels were the main power source followed by the PV inverter which converted DC to AC suitable for supplying our everyday loads. Excess energy was stored in one of two forms – either in batteries (“electrons”) or as hydrogen (“molecules”). We used lead-acid batteries to charge a “short-term” energy buffer. In hydrogen-backed system batteries often supply immediate loads, i.e. when switching on a water pump or to allow for hydrogen fuel cells to ramp up before the fuel cell starts to carry the loads.

The hydrogen system consisted of two electrolyzers and a hydrogen dryer which increases the purity of the gas from 99.95% to >99.999%. Furthermore, a water tank module with a simple consumer-grade water treatment system and a fuel cell to produce electricity as a byproduct of hydrogen+oxygen reaction was part of the setup. In our setup, batteries are charged first, when they are full, excess power was used to start the electrolyzers which fill in the hydrogen “long-term” energy storage.

We used the Enapter IoT Gateway to manage the system easily and efficiently. Its purpose is to collect the data from the energy devices, analyze and process it into suitable commands. All energy devices connect via Enapter communication modules, which translate any device-specific protocol into the universal communication protocol used in the Enapter ecosystem. Site controlling logic was configured in a few minutes right during the presentation using the Enapter Rule Engine – the Gateway subsystem which executes rules in a simple if-then-else form defined by the user (i.e. if the battery voltage is above 50V and based on solar irradiance the estimated excess energy in above 2kW, then start electrolysers).

How do you think green hydrogen energy could be used in energy storage in the future? Also, in comparison to the most prominent energy storage methods employed today, what does Enapter’s technology change?

The unique advantage of hydrogen is its universal usability. Today, we see many ways where our system will be the most cost-competitive. We believe that hydrogen will effectively capture and transform excess electricity on- and off-grid. For short term storage, new types of batteries and super-caps will be doing a good job. When it comes to seasonal and long-term storage hydrogen is in the pole position for the future. Not only will hydrogen provide power-to-gas-go-power solutions, but it can also provide the fuels, gases and industry feedstock we need to decarbonize.

 

Image from serial production launch of Enapter’s technology.

Finally, could you share some of the projects that Enapter is currently working on and some of the company’s goals for the future with our readers?

We believe that the Enapter will dramatically reduce the price for electrolyzers over the next years. As of the beginning of next year, we will reduce our prices due to our newly launched serial production facility. We have been working on projects on all continents in the world. Just as an example, we have recently signed an agreement with Thailand’s biggest energy company working to build an Energy Excellence Center with them that will be showcased for the further deployment of grid-tied and off-grid microgrid settings.

We will continue to build our workforce (please take a look for our open job posts) and we will further scale our production. Our final goal is to make green hydrogen cheaper than fossil fuels.

Die Fragen stellte Ingrid Fadelli, Electronics Point.

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