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 centre 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.
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.
IF: Could you briefly outline your role at Enapter and your contribution or involvement in developing the technology?
SJS: After I sold my company, SPB Software, in 2011, I started designing my family house in Northern Thailand in my spare time. As we were guests in Thailand, I wanted to build something completely sustainable. We put more than 100KW of 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 behind these systems, and bought the company in November 2017. This is how Enapter was born.
Today, my son Jan-Justus, who started early with hydrogen and green technology, is Enapter’s COO. The entire team, from the early founding activities to today, did very well. We started with 11 employees and we now have about 78 people. It is a great team with technological and visionary strength. Today, the R&D and all other departments are growing fast. I now focus on strategic work. My big task right now is to establish an effective advisory board.
IF: How is electricity involved in this technology (i.e. what is/are its electrical component/s)?
SJS: The electrolyser needs electricity to produce hydrogen – and water. So our “hydrogen generators” effectively transform electricity into the energy carrier hydrogen. This opens up a wide range of applications where electricity can be converted from renewable resources into hydrogen energy.
IF: How can electrolysers be used to produce renewable energy or other types of electricity?
SJS: Hydrogen produced with an electrolyser makes most sense if wind, solar or other renewable energy sources are being used. We are facing a global challenge: we need more energy, we want mobility to be electric, we want to replace all fossil fuels, but nobody wants more electric wires or transmission systems next to their home. Moreover, we are starting to realize that power is not the only form of energy we should consider. Roughly a third of global energy use is in the form of electricity and the rest is for heating, cooling, transportation and industry. In the energy sector, the differentiation between “electrons” and “molecules” and their decarbonisation pathways are becoming more important. If we really want to decarbonize our world, we need hydrogen. It is the only form of energy which can scale decarbonized fuels and gases. Hydrogen can use existing gas networks and blends in easily. Hydrogen enables the efficient coupling of the electricity with the heating and transport sectors.
IF: 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?
SJS: It was a big event. The goal was to show a microgrid setting that can be fully powered by solar energy; no fossil fuels needed. Hydrogen was used to replace the diesel generator. We had guests from all over the world. We installed solar panels to conduct a real microgrid demonstration. The showcased energy solution contained analog and digital sensors and equipment from different vendors including Enapter, SMA, and Plug Power.
In the Enapter network, each component is built to operate independently to solve its task – producing solar energy, 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 Energy Management System software, 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. We connect all devices into a unified energy network where different components speak to each other and control each other with defined logic. What our audience found most impressive was when we visualized the data in the Enapter Cloud and analyzed it in real time with machine learning algorithms for the analysis of issues and performance tuning. We are still at the beginning, but people told us that they haven’t seen this done anywhere before.
The microgrid integrators also loved the setup procedure: the complete system is configured in only a few easy steps by scanning QR codes located on each component. The system allows the integrator to monitor and control devices and receive alerts about issues via push notifications. The entire workshop was designed to be very hands-on and simple to understand. The audience gave us very positive feedback about the event and our technology, which strengthened our confidence further.
IF: 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?
SJS: When people hear of microgrids and independent energy systems they fear complexity even more than high prices. Our goal was to show that these things are manageable. Even though the electrolyser is only one component in the system, it is the single most expensive part as of now. We will make this component much cheaper and start building acceptance and raising awareness about it. 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.
IF: How do you think the electrolyser affects the electronics engineering industry?
SJS: 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 electrolyser and dryer, control units, IoT Universal Communication Modules, and a Gateway, which are based on MCU or CPU from vendors such as 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 turn-key solutions with defined inputs and outputs. Software is the key to operating and monitoring performance. It provides a real time operating system using common protocols such as REST HTTP/HTTPS, MQTT, ModBus, and we are now also starting to work with OPC/UA. This approach provides third party engineers reference designs and open tools for building custom applications that rely on our technologies. Simplicity is the main point we focus on, in order to make the technology available to as many users as possible.
IF: 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?
SJS: With an increased share of variable electricity generation, there is more need to make this electricity usable for novel applications. Producing hydrogen is one suitable way that makes a lot of sense. The best place 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. If more renewable energy is stored onsite and is able to couple with all sectors, a fully decentralized system is developed, and the impact can be massive. However – this will only happen if hydrogen generation costs decrease further. We are working on it!
IF: How was the microgrid showcased at the event in Thailand powered by the hydrogen electrolyser technology?
SJS: 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 that converts DC to AC, making it suitable for supplying our everyday loads. The excess energy was stored in one of two forms – either in a battery (“electrons”) or as hydrogen (“molecules”). We used lead-acid batteries to charge a “short-term” energy buffer. In a hydrogen-backed system, batteries often supply immediate loads, like switching on a water pump or allowing hydrogen fuel cells to ramp up before the fuel cell starts to carry the loads.
The hydrogen system consists of two electrolysers 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, and when they are full the excess power is used to start the electrolysers, 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 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 battery voltage is above 50V and based on solar irradiance the estimated excess energy in above 2kW, then start electrolysers).
IF: 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?
SJS: The unique advantage of hydrogen is its universal usability. Today, we see many reasons why our system will be the most competitive cost-wise. We believe that hydrogen will effectively capture and transform excess electricity on- and off-grid. New types of batteries and super-caps will fulfil short-term energy storage needs. When it comes to seasonal and long-term storage, hydrogen is the best option for the future. Not only will hydrogen provide power-to-gas-to-power solutions, but it can also provide the fuels, gases and industry feedstock we need to decarbonize.
IF: 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?
SJS: We believe that Enapter will dramatically reduce the price for electrolysers over the coming years. By the beginning of next year we will reduce our prices, due to our newly launched serial production facility. We are currently working on projects in every continent. For example, we have recently signed an agreement with Thailand’s biggest energy company to build an Energy Excellence Center that will showcase the further deployment of grid-tied and off-grid microgrid settings. Our ultimate goal is to make green hydrogen cheaper than fossil fuels.
Schmidt and his colleagues at Enapter strongly believe that hydrogen will play a crucial role in generating energy in the future, as it has the potential to provide independence from fossil fuels and more conventional energy production techniques within a variety of sectors.
Engineers at Enapter will now continue applying their expertise in electrochemical processes and IT to develop new solutions that could eventually pave the way towards a greener and carbon-free future.