As a new technology develops, each new innovation boasts to be the newest, biggest, longest, most efficient in the world—at least for a time. International chemical group Solvay is now claiming the title of world’s largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell with a 1 megawatt hydrogen fuel cell at the SolVin chlorine plant in Antwerp, Belgium. This industrial demonstration fuel cell has been creating energy at a steady rate two months, generating over 500 megawatt-hours of power during 800 hours of operation—equivalent energy to power 1,370 families throughout that time.
This PEM fuel cell converts the chemical energy from coproduced hydrogen (H2) into electricity through an electrochemical reaction with oxygen. According to Nedstack, the fuel cell system has allowed the Solvin plant to self-generate 20 to 40 percent of the electricity it uses. The chlorine industry is quite energy intensive, but the PEM fuel cell system converts the hydrogen produced as a byproduct into electricity that can be then be used by the plant.
Beyond electricity, the fuel cell system produces a good amount of heat that is also used in the plant’s production processes. The plant is currently operating at 50 percent electricity efficiency and a total efficiency of 80 percent, Solvay said.
Fuel cells in general are an exciting source of clean energy because the only byproducts of the process are water and heat. While much of fuel cell development has been focused on the potential for mobile applications—cars, trucks and buses and the like—fuel cells of this large size give another clean energy option for buildings and homes. Whether the fuel cell’s energy cost is competitive with other sources is not yet revealed.
The ambitious project is billed as the first major milestone in the Project Hydrogen Region Flanders-South Netherlands, coordinated by WaterstofNet. Project Hydrogen focuses on developing expertise and projects on sustainable hydrogen and early market applications using European technology. Of the total project’s 5 million euro budget, Project Hydrogen provided 1.5 million euros.
The PEM fuel cell definitely qualifies as a collaborative European effort, materializing through the coordination of multiple companies and technologies. Solvicore, a 50/50 joint venture of Solvay and Umicore, manufactured the membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) in Germany using Solvay’s innovative polymers. Dutch company Nedstack and MTSA then built the fuel cell using these assemblies.