At the Col du Palet, in the French Alps, there is a mountain hut that has replaced the old diesel generators with solar panels and electrolysers, which produce hydrogen and store it to provide energy in the winter months. In Holland, in a residential complex in green Rozenburg, a project with hydrogen boilers for heating has started. Liaocheng, on the other hand, is a city-region in China with 6 million inhabitants. Drones capable of carrying up to a kilo of equipment, drones with fuel cells that use small cylinders of hydrogen to fly and transmit images, have been built and put on the market there. Green, green, zero impact and carbon dioxide emission-free hydrogen. It is the result of studies and a patented technology in Lavoria, an industrial center that is part of the municipality of Crespina Lorenzana, in the province of Pisa. Today the company is called Enapter, it produces electrolysers for hydrogen and is in full expansion. “These are efficient hydrogen generators – says Simone Perini, from Livorno, responsible for external relations for Italy – this is a market that a few years ago did not exist, we have revolutionized the sector and today requests come from all over the world. But no, it’s not enough: we want to lower prices and make green hydrogen accessible to everyone, replacing fossil fuels and paving the way for clean energy”.
THE DIFFICULTIES AND THE TURNING POINT
In reality, Enapter rose from the ashes of the Acta company, founded in the early 2000s and put into liquidation in 2015, when the financiers began to stop believing in the project. Between 2009 and 2010 Acta’s engineers and researchers managed to design an innovative technology for electrolysis, with which oxygen and hydrogen are split through an electrochemical process. And so, in 2011, in a shed in Lavoria, the first electrolyser of this type, called AEM (Anion exchange membranes), was created because it uses a semi-permeable membrane for the passage of anions. And on that same shed – in 2017, with Acta in liquidation – decided to invest a former client of the company, Sebastian-Justus Schmidt, German entrepreneur who won the hydrogen bet. “He founded Enapter and obtained the patent – explains Perini – Schmidt had experimented with electrolysers for a residential complex in Thailand, the Phi Suea House, completely disconnected from the electricity grid, and eventually decided to dive into this adventure. By now we have to think of hydrogen as an energy vector: just a few days ago the European Commission presented a 180 billion euro 30-year plan to stimulate the production of hydrogen for energy purposes”.
ADVANTAGES AND OBJECTIVES
But how does the Enapter’s AEM electrolyser work? What’s the process? And where are the environmental benefits? The mechanism of the electrolyzer is simple: using for example solar energy, in addition to water of course, you get to the production of hydrogen and oxygen without carbon dioxide emissions, unlike those who start using methane. And that hydrogen, if recombined with oxygen through a fuel cell, also creates electricity. Let’s take the case of Schmidt’s Phi Suea House: solar panels support the electrical load of the structure and at the same time power the electrolyzer to produce hydrogen, so the excess of energy is stored and used later. “With this system we want to be attractive all over the world – comments Perini – today the production of hydrogen through electrolysis is still expensive, difficult to sustain, but our goal is to cut costs more and more to reach the whole population. How? By following the three pillars of our philosophy: first of all investing in research, so much so that a year ago in Lavoria we opened a second site dedicated only to this sector, then an increase in production on a global scale and finally maximum interoperability, which passes from an electrolyzer software able to communicate easily with solar panels and fuel cells”.
PROJECTS AND THE FUTURE
Three years later, Schmidt’s investment has therefore been a winner: Enapter’s employees have grown from 11 to more than 60, with more planned to be hired in August, and in the meantime new locations have been opened in Berlin, Bangkok and St. Petersburg. And today the AEM electrolyser is used in 33 different countries. “However, production has remained in Lavoria,” explains Perini, “on the one hand we have recalled the so-called brain drain, bringing engineers and researchers of a certain level back to Italy, and on the other hand experts have arrived from England, the United States and even Argentina. Now our business plan foresees a big expansion, but unfortunately we have found some problems in Italy”. And here Perini doesn’t hide a bit of bitterness: “The intention – he says – was to expand and run joint laboratories with universities for research and development, all in Italy and especially in Tuscany. But between bureaucracy and few funds available, we were forced to shift our attention to Germany, which is investing a lot of resources in hydrogen. Think about this: in Lavoria we have been waiting for a year for the installation of a medium voltage booth…We had also thought of taking other site in Lavoria or moving to an area at the Guasticce interport, towards Livorno, but the institutions were not particularly careful. It’s absurd to let a company willing to invest tens of millions of euros in a sector with a sure prospect, with jobs that would be fundamental for a region that will have a double-digit GDP drop in 2020”.
Author: Gianni Tacchi.
Link to original print (in Italian) here.