The future of our energy supply may be brighter than we think

Until now, the production and storage of hydrogen energy has proved a huge challenge because the process is too expensive. Production of hydrogen by electrolysis uses precious metals at an enormous financial cost, but Professor Per Møller from the Section of Materials and Surface Engineering at DTU is close to discovering an electrode that is both cost-friendly and effective. This could mean a breakthrough in the use of wind power in hydrogen production. Professor Møller is also working with the idea of using hydrogen to produce so-called synthetic natural gas. Together, these ideas could change the future of our energy supply.



Old ideas revived

Professor Møller’s inspiration comes from scientists and innovators of an earlier historical era. One is physicist Poul la Cour, who as early as the 1890s performed research in the field of wind energy and storing wind as hydrogen (and oxygen) energy by passing the electricity through water and using electrolysis. The other inspiration came from the American engineer Murray Raney, who in 1926 developed a nickel catalyst used in the hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. These historic scientists and engineers have each contributed to a concept that, in the form of Professor Møller’s research, may completely change traditional thinking about our energy supply. Professor Møller is focusing on developing an electrode that is both effective and durable. And it appears that he has had more luck than previous researchers around the world, many of whom have worked with the idea to little or no success.


Lots of hydrogen with few wind turbines

The secret to Professor Møller’s idea is to construct a very large surface per square metre of electrode. The objective is to discover a technology that can produce the largest amount of hydrogen using as few wind turbines as possible. Per Møller’s electrode can be compared to a giant magnification of a landscape composed of individual cauliflowers. In the case of the electrode, the 'landscape’ is made of nickel. The structure is ’fractalised’ to such a degree that an enormous three-dimensional surface is achieved in a very small area. 


In terms of the technology process, this type of electrode can be manufactured very inexpensively. But making the optimal electrode is not without its obstacles, because if the surface of the nickel landscape becomes too large, the micro- and nano-structures lose some of their durability, and the electrode becomes fragile and is eroded by the large amounts of gas generated during the electrolysis process. Conversely, if the surface of the nickel landscape is too small, the electrode will not be sufficiently effective and cost-friendly. The trick is then to create an electrode that demonstrates a perfect balance between efficiency and durability. Something which Professor Per Møller has already accomplished in a test version.  


Everyone wants to own the future

Few disagree that hydrogen will play a central role in our future energy supply. The question is, who will be first to market effective methods of production and usage? Many companies are involved in the race to be first, because everyone wants to own the future. And Professor Møller's electrode is well on the way to providing the answer to the first part of the question. 


Under laboratory conditions the efficiency of the electrode has been tested at up to 93% efficiency. But beyond the laboratory, the next step is toward full-scale electrolysis cells that can be integrated into cars, houses, or power plants. Green Hydrogen is taking responsibility for this aspect of the project.

Professor Møller is certain that he is pursuing the development of a very promising technology. Moreover, the project is ahead of its objectives, so when it concludes in 3 years, Professor Møller expects that the first electrolysis facilities will be established around the country. 


Based on proven technology

There is also the question of how we can utilise hydrogen in an effective way. And this is where Professor Møller’s second research focus comes into play. It concerns combining various energy production methods in a different way than we do today. When surplus wind energy can be used to produce hydrogen through cost-effective electrolysis, we can then process the hydrogen with the CO2 from biogas production to create methane and water in what is known as a Sabatier reactor. Through this process we can then produce synthetic natural gas. The combination of biogas installation and hydrogen production resulting from surplus wind energy can blaze brand new trails for the energy production of the future.  


Both the project’s inherent potential and the top-flight qualifications of the research group are reflected in the fact that Siemens A/S is involved in the project. And it is entirely possible that the results obtained from the research project can make a significant contribution to guiding Denmark safely toward the government’s 2020 energy plan, which among other aims calls for half of our future electricity consumption to be derived from wind energy.  


Figure 1: Metallic surface of a nickel electrode.  



The project is entitled: ”High-efficiency, low-cost electrode surfaces for next generation alkaline electrolysis”. The project is being carried out over 3 years with a total budget of DKK 23 million, of which DKK 12 million is provided by The Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation.

The project is carried out in conjunction with: Siemens A/S, Green Hydrogen, Hydrogen Innovation & Research Centre (HIRC).