22 September 2020

The rise of the hydrogen economy

In addition to a myriad of new innovations focusing on hydrogen production, there are an equal number of companies developing technologies to use hydrogen safely and efficiently as an energy source.

Significant advances have taken place in recent years in both hydrogen production and its use as a source of clean energy. In a recent white paper from the International Energy Agency (IEA) titled ‘The Future of Hydrogen – Seizing today’s opportunities’ (IEA, 2019) produced ahead of the G20 meeting in Japan in June 2019, the potential for hydrogen as a source of clean, secure and affordable energy was heavily promoted, with the potential to decarbonise a number of high CO2 emitting industries such as long-haul air-travel and haulage, as well as chemical and steel production. As hydrogen production is not weather dependent, is has the ability to assist where variable output and intermittent renewable sources such as wind or solar may struggle.

While the potential use of hydrogen is widespread and its use in vehicles – particularly for public transport – has already begun, significant policy changes, and more importantly changes in attitude and industry support, will be required to fully take advantage of the benefits that hydrogen energy can offer. International demand for hydrogen is on the rise, and specifically in China, South Korea, the US, Europe and Japan, it is expected to increase up to 10 times over the coming decades. Many countries have therefore already begun introducing hydrogen energy strategies to roll out its use and to ensure that infrastructure and production can meet demand. The European Commission recently adopted a new strategy on the use of hydrogen and development of hydrogen technology in Europe, from research to production over the coming years (European Commission, 2020). In addition, in March 2020 the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance (ECH2A) was announced, bringing together multiple stakeholders to meet the hydrogen production and distribution needs across Europe (ECH2A, 2020).  To help realise the growing demand for hydrogen production and hydrogen energy infrastructure/distribution, many high innovation companies across the world are developing new technologies for the safe and sustainable production, use and transportation of hydrogen.

One such innovator, a member of ECH2A and a client, is hydrogen generator designer and manufacturer, Enapter, with operations in Germany, Italy, Thailand and Russia (Enapter, 2020). Enapter has developed a patented technology based on Anion Exchange Membrane (AEM) technology that produces green hydrogen (H2) gas via the electrolysis of water, without the need for expensive and environmentally unfriendly noble metal or titanium plates, often seen in other electrolysis solutions. The solution is compact and offered as a single unit and as such is stackable, meaning that hydrogen production via the Enapter system can be easily scaled as demand dictates. The technology has already been implemented around the world for residential purposes and for rural electrification and microgrid storage. This latter use has been highlighted in a recent article by Forbes: ‘Hydrogen May be the Crucial Jigsaw Piece for Green Microgrids’ (Silverstein, 2020).

Enapter’s activities have attracted significant attention in Germany, homeland of senior founder Sebastian-Justus Schmidt, where the company has won in the ‘Industry’ category at the annual Handelsblatt Energy Awards (Handelsblatt, 2020) in January 2020.  More recently, the German government has adopted a national hydrogen strategy plan for the production and use of hydrogen, which will likely further drive and incentivise innovations in this sector in Germany and further afield.

In addition to a myriad of new innovations focusing on hydrogen production, there are an equal number of companies developing technologies to use hydrogen safely and efficiently as an energy source. Many of these innovations have taken place in the development of hydrogen fuel cells in the automotive sector.  The number of patents filed worldwide in this sector have reached in the thousands per annum over the last 10 years (Pohlmann, 2019). The companies mainly responsible for new filings in fuel cell technology have been Japanese automotive companies such as Toyota Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Korean Hyundai; although both Ford and General Motors have shown increased activity in recent years. A recent article by the American Chemical Society has highlighted the rise in innovations since 2009 focusing on mechanism of safe transportation and storage of hydrogen, through existing infrastructures centred around ammonia and methylcyclohexane, from which hydrogen can be later extracted (Sayfullin, 2020).

In the UK, considerable efforts have been made to demonstrate the extensive production and supply of hydrogen with the awarding of significant government funding for large-scale projects such as Dolphyn, which integrates floating offshore wind turbines with integrated water treatment units and electrolysers, which could then pipe the hydrogen to shore; Hynet, which is based on Johnson Matthey low carbon technology and a consortium of other companies including Progressive Energy, Essar and SNC-Lavalin; or HyPER from Cranfield University which is based on a sorption enhanced steam reforming process developed by the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) (Crown Copyright, 2020).

Increasing innovation and heavy investment in research, and consequently in intellectual property (IP) assets such as patents, in the both the production and use of hydrogen has not been lost on the investment community worldwide. A Financial Times article published earlier this year (Sanderson, 2020) highlights investors’ interest in hopping on the hydrogen bandwagon as shares in numerous hydrogen production companies have soared, partially due to increasing large investments from a number of large multinationals and increased government subsidies.

Bosch has had a JDA agreement in place since 2018 with UK-based Ceres Power, which has developed a solid oxide based fuel cell technology as well as making an equity investment of circa £9m in the company, while UK-based developer of IP heavy businesses IP Group Plc had an 18.6% equity share in the business (IP Group, 2020).  Earlier this year, Bosch increased its stake in Ceres Power to 18% following a share subscription (Proactive Investors, 2020), while IP Group recently sold some of its shares in the business.

Likewise, UK-based Electrolyser company ITM Power has recently entered into a joint venture with gas supplier Linde to form the new entity ITM Linde Electrolysis GmbH (ITM Power, 2020) following significant strategic investment by Linde in late 2019 (ITM Power, 2019).

European utility company Enel has announced that it will launch a hydrogen business in 2021 (Reuters, 2020), while venture capital (VC) interest in supporting early-stage hydrogen companies has steadily increased. BGF recently invested in fuel cell company Bramble Energy, while a hydrogen-focused VC fund called ‘AP Ventures’ was established in 2016 in London to support companies in the hydrogen value chain and already counts companies such as US Altergy (PEM fuel cells) and Norwegian ZEG Power (High purity H2 and CO2 production) amongst its portfolio companies.

Overall, it is clear that there is significant interest from private industry, the investment community and governments worldwide in further developing the hydrogen economy, although many realise  that hydrogen remains too expensive (and the required infrastructure too intermittent) at this time to enable widespread adoption in the near term.

With so many innovations taking place in hydrogen production and use, and more generally across the energy sector, it is becoming increasingly important for these cutting edge energy companies to not only actively protect their technology via patents, but also to identify and actively protect other intangible assets including  designs, trade secrets, software assets, algorithms and data as these assets not only drive growth and increase value in the business, but also provide a way of attracting investors to aid in the development and commercialisation of the technology.

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Energy Engineering in September 2020 (page 10-11).