AFC Energy PLC, the British fuel cell company, announced on May 20 the successful conclusion of “ammonia to power (‘A2P’) fuel cell generator trials.” The result is “proof of concept” for a system consisting of an “off the shelf” ammonia cracker and a proprietary alkaline fuel cell that can readily utilize hydrogen with residual quantities of uncracked ammonia. The achievement positions AFC “to conclude work on the business case and engineering of an integrated, scalable ammonia fuelled clean power generator.”
AFC was launched in 2006 after its founders acquired “certain intellectual property rights” from the Dutch energy company Eneco. The focus from the outset was alkaline fuel cell technology. According to the company’s website, “alkaline fuel cells are the oldest and most effective of all fuel cell chemistries achieving up to 60% electrical efficiency.” Moreover, “alkaline chemistry is the most reliable of all fuel cell technologies as evidenced by its selection for both space and submarine applications over other available technologies. However, they have historically failed to find commercial terrestrial applications due to cost. The catalysts and materials used in the 1950s and 60s provided high power output but at a very high cost.”
AFC has devoted itself to the pursuit of “a low lifetime cost of ownership” for alkaline fuel cells, and has been able to reduce “costs through a lower operating temperature (i.e. below 100 degrees Celsius) and operating pressures.” The company believes its products are now relevant in situations characterized by high prevailing prices for electricity and a desire for reduced emissions, and specifically “energy intensive sectors [that] are increasingly exposed to government carbon policy and rising power prices.”
The list of specific market applications targeted by the company is a work in progress. “We had originally focused on . . . the chlor-alkali market or markets where there is a byproduct of hydrogen generated through a chemical process,” CEO Adam Bond explained in a May 3 Proactive Investors interview. The idea would have been to use the company’s fuel cells to convert byproduct hydrogen into salable (or internally usable) electricity. Such an approach would involve an extremely short hydrogen logistics chain. Unfortunately, Bond said, “the challenge for us is a lot of those facilities no longer vent as much hydrogen as perhaps they did,” driven, presumably by increasing recognition of the value of hydrogen as a commodity in its own right. As a result, “it makes it increasingly difficult for us to compete, especially with a new technology that is at the top of its cost curve.”
The company’s turn to other applications, such as replacement of diesel gen-sets in remote locations, may have spurred its interest in ammonia-to-power. The press release explains that “AFC Energy’s ability to accept lower grade, and therefore lower cost, hydrogen derived from readily available ammonia is a key advantage not only to the off-grid deployment of its fuel cell system, but also in the logistical sourcing of the fuel in locations where hydrogen is not easily available.”
The 18-month trial included a “full third-party safety review [that] demonstrates safe operation of the integrated system,” according to the press release. One notable finding is that a “negligible difference in fuel-cell performance [was] witnessed between direct hydrogen gas sourced from industrial gas companies, and that sourced from cracked ammonia.”
Completion of the trial leaves the company ready “to scale up power production with increases in the size of the cracker capacity and fuel cell to deliver multi-MW solutions.” The company’s base fuel cell module has a power rating of 10 kW. Its “business model is to target the deployment of large-scale stationary fuel cell systems.” A 240 kW system was installed at a partner site in Germany in 2015. Engineering and design were completed in 2018 on a 1,000 kW system. The company received funding from European Union R&D programs for development of the base system and the 240 kW version.
During his Proactive Investors interview, CEO Bond described the company’s latest application concept: electric vehicle charging. The idea is that deployment of fuel cells in key spots, for example those served by grid assets that are already close to their operational capacity, could be an economically attractive way to bolster the supply of electricity to EV charging stations. AFC, he said, is pondering the virtues of “integrating that cable you use today with an off-grid power source. [This will allow] you to more or less generate power wherever you need it.”
The animating insight behind this idea is that electricity dispensed through public charging stations commands a significant price premium over the normal wall-plug variety. In the United Kingdom, a kWh of electricity delivered through a curbside charging station is typically priced at USD $0.25-$0.30, vs. USD $0.15-$0.20 for domestic electricity. (For reference, the cost per kWh of energy embodied in brown ammonia delivered to a port in northwest Europe is currently in the range of USD $0.06-$0.08.)
If AFC’s EV charging idea pans out, it would provide another way – in addition to high-purity conversion of ammonia to hydrogen at fueling stations and ammonia-fueled internal combustion engines — for ammonia to serve as an energy vector for the transportation sector. But the direct option presents itself: putting the alkaline fuel cell in the car itself and making the ammonia cracker part of the fueling station. It is easy to imagine that that would lead to an energy supply system that overall is more affordable and efficient. The key will be for AFC and the other leaders in alkaline fuel cell technology, such as GenCell (see GenCell launches commercial alkaline fuel cell using cracked ammonia fuel) and the University of Delaware (see More Progress for Automotive-Oriented Direct Ammonia Fuel Cells), to bring alkaline fuel cell costs within range of those of a proton exchange fuel cells.