Wallingford hydrogen company part of renewable energy research team with $10M federal grant

WALLINGFORD — Nel Hydrogen, the parent company of Proton Onsite, is part of a team that’s exploring how to manufacture ammonia in a more sustainable way, using funding from a government grant.

Dr. Kathy Ayers, Nel vice president of research and development, said Friday that production of ammonia — a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen — takes the most energy and produces the most carbon dioxide out of all of the chemicals that are generated at scale.

“The reason is because they’re making the hydrogen from methane,” Ayers said. 

“When you are taking methane and convert it to hydrogen,” she said,” the byproduct is CO2 (carbon dioxide). If you replace that with hydrogen from splitting water, now you’ve gotten rid of that whole carbon pathway.”

Nel is providing electrolyzers — hydrogen generators that use electricity to split water into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen — for the project, allowing renewable hydrogen to be introduced into the ammonia manufacturing process.

The project’s goal is to make renewable hydrogen more cost effective through decreasing capital costs and increasing efficiency, Ayers said.

Eight to 10 people at Nel’s Wallingford facility are working on various aspects of electrolyzer assembly, with another two to three scientists involved in the project on the research side, she said.

Another aspect to Nel’s work is showing how the electrolyzer units can integrate with existing ammonia processes.

“They’re not doing anything that’s that different from a normal ammonia plant,” Ayers said. “It’s more on the chemistry side. For us, it’s a good way of really showing that you can integrate renewable hydrogen into the ammonia process.”

Nel, located at 10 Technology Drive, is a global firm based in Norway. Nel acquired Proton Onsite in 2017.

Funding

Nel is one of several team members working on this project under RTI International, a nonprofit research institute.

In May, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded RTI $10 million in funding through the Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids plus Integration and Testing (REFUEL+IT) program.

The overall goal is to demonstrate new processes for producing and using low-carbon energy carriers like ammonia, which can be easily transported for use in agriculture, industry and as an energy source, according to a statement from RTI.

Stephen Szymanski, Nel vice president of sales and marketing in the Americas, said via email Friday that Nel electrolyzers can take renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and produce hydrogen in an emission-free process.

Today, ammonia production represents “one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas, of any industrial process,” Szymanski said.

“By using Nel’s electrolyzer equipment as the source of hydrogen for the RTI ammonia production process,” he said, “CO2 emissions can be completely eliminated and the ammonia product can be considered ‘green’ or ‘renewable.’ This is an important contribution to achieving large scale de-carbonization in the industrial sector.”

It’s unknown how much of the project funding will be directed to Nel’s scope, as the overall budget is still in development, he said.

In addition to RTI and Nel, the project team includes Casale, University of Minnesota, Nutrien, GE, Xcel Energy, Great River Energy, Otter Tail Power Company, Runestone Electric Association, Chemtronergy, Texas Tech University, Pacifica, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and Shell.

[email protected]: @LCTakores