Italian sustainable technologies designer De Nora strongly believes in a future where fossils are no longer used for “trivial” operations such as generating electrical power or as vehicle fuel.
The transition to a 100% fossil free society will take many years and Luca Buonerba, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at De Nora, sees the future energy mix as being a combination of batteries, hydrogen and synthetic fuels.
“But what differentiates hydrogen from the rest is its flexibility and the possibility to be either an energy vector or a renewable feedstock for a series of downstream processes,” he tells H2 View.
“We therefore believe that hydrogen can offer an economically viable, financially attractive and socially beneficial solutions. Furthermore, in certain sectors and geographies it will be unavoidable to enable the energy transition and improve air quality in cities.”
As part of an exclusive interview, Buonerba talks to H2 View about De Nora’s origins, activities in the hydrogen sector and its partnership with AFC Energy.
Q. Let’s firstly talk about De Nora. Could you give us a brief overview of the company?
De Nora is a global company and we are the number one provider of electrodes and catalytic coatings for electrochemical processes, serving many diversified industrial markets.
We are also one of the leading companies delivering sustainable and innovative water and wastewater technologies for municipal, marine and energy-related water treatment applications.
Founded in 1923 by Oronzio De Nora in Milan, Italy, the company evolved over time to become a multinational entity exploiting its vast know-how and IP portfolio establishing as partner of choice for its customers all over the world.
The company counts almost 1600 employee in 19 locations and has three R&D centres, mainly committed to electrodes technologies, in Japan, Italy and the US. These centres are focused on continuous development and innovation of our product portfolio focusing on customers’ needs and anticipating global trends.
Q. And how does De Nora fit into the vision of a hydrogen economy?
The hydrogen economy and decarbonisation, together with water scarcity and the circular economy, are the drivers for sustainable growth of our Group. In fact, electrochemistry and catalysts play a key role in green hydrogen production, using both acidic (PEM) and alkaline water electrolysis (AWE) processes.
Fuel cells are meant to be the optimal substitute of UPS, diesel generators, combined heat and power units, combustion engines for mobility. These are areas where we are continuously investing in terms of both R&D and upgrading of our manufacturing capacity, in view of the expected growth of the demand of hydrogen and therefore of water electrolysis installations.
You may be aware that De Nora developed industrial alkaline water electrolysis cells back in the 1970s and we have some plants that are still among the largest ever built.
In the late 1990s to early 2000s, we developed our proprietary PEM fuel cells, gas diffusion electrodes and MEA being the founder of Nuvera Fuel Cells and E-Tek.
Since 2014, we started again to focus our R&D efforts in the development of new catalysts, electrodes and electrochemical systems for hydrogen generation through water electrolysis (both alkaline and PEM) and hydrogen use in fuel cells (PEM, high temperature PEM, PA and alkaline).
Q. What specific activities related to hydrogen is De Nora currently pursuing?
Through our strategic partnerships with joint venture Thyssen Krupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers and other key players in the industry like McPhy and AFC Energy, De Nora is involved in all aspects of the electrochemical steps related to hydrogen:
- Hydrogen generation through water electrolysis – here we developed a new innovative combination of electrodes, separator and cell components architecture able to improve the performance of a standard alkaline water electrolyser, increasing by a factor greater than two the current density (compared to the previous “best available technology”) guaranteeing at the same time, the lowest energy consumption per normal cubic meter of hydrogen generated.
- Hydrogen utilisation in fuel cells – De Nora re-entered this business in 2014 signing a license agreement with BASF for the right to manufacture and market gas diffusion electrodes (GDE) suitable for use in PEM fuel cells, originally developed by De Nora. Under the well-recognised E-Tek brand we produce today a series of advanced catalysts and GDE electrodes in a dedicated fully automated manufacturing line in Germany.
- In addition, R&D activities are mainly targeting the development of new catalysts and electrodes for different fuel cells chemistries: phosphoric acid and alkaline.
Q. Tell us about your partnership with AFC Energy, which was recently strengthened?
De Nora entered into a strategic technology collaboration with AFC Energy in 2016 through the signature of a dedicated Joint Development Agreement.
The collaboration was targeting a technological enhancement to AFC Energy’s fuel cell system, with a focus on electrode performances and longevity to further accelerate commercialisation of AFC Energy’s technology platform.
Now after couple of years of co-operation we achieved some key milestones in the electrode performance, putting AFC in a competitive position in the addressed markets:
- Results of twelve-month operation of fuel cell electrode at AFC Energy’s test facility supports that life expectancy of De Nora electrodes will exceed four years in continuous operations;
- Such four-year lifetime of De Nora electrodes, matching the targeted commercial longevity, allows to achieve a power conversion cost of < US$0.10 / kWh (excl. fuel cost).
AFC Energy and De Nora are continuing to develop respectively the alkaline fuel cell and the electrode technologies and we are confident that further improvements in electrode performance and reduction in cost are feasible.
The ultimate scope of our collaboration with AFC Energy is to allow them to enter the market with a low-cost product, able to compete, at least for the stationary applications, with other fuel cell technologies where due to high power cost the hydrogen route is favoured, like Korea.
Q. What are the next steps for the partnership?
De Nora has started some activities on the scaling up of the electrode’s chemistry at its German manufacturing facility to ensure consistency, replicability and quality assurance in advance of large-scale electrode orders.
In parallel, as during this collaboration De Nora and AFC Energy have continued to make progress on additional enhancements, thus reducing electrodes’ degradation, improving efficiency and costs, the companies are now working towards for a new set of further improved electrodes.
Q. Finally, what changes have you seen within the hydrogen ecosystem and community in the past year in Italy?
The Italian government as well as few regions are finally promoting incentives and funds for the installation of demonstration plants and this is promoting a number of collaborations and partnerships among companies with complementary competences that could all serve to kick off the energy transition.