PEMs Stack Up to the Competition
The element hydrogen offers hope and headaches in equal measure. The most abundant element on the planet is also one of the most attractive for use as fuel. But because it is also the lightest element, it does not naturally occur in pure form. Hydrogen is so crucial in
manufacturing, energy supply, and scientific research that new methods to
improve production are being eagerly sought.
Hydrogen production is difficult. Generating the gas costs more energy
than can be recovered from heat in combustion. And containing and storing this highly flammable gas has been a constant challenge as well.
The leading method of production is steam-methane reforming, which
extracts hydrogen from methane gas. This is the leading process for generating hydrogen in large quantities, but produces carbon dioxide and
carbon monoxide. Electrolysis is the other prevalent method, in which
electricity applied to water separates hydrogen and oxygen atoms, yielding
pure hydrogen and waste oxygen.
For research laboratories, these options traditionally meant relying on
third-party gas producers to generate, store, and deliver hydrogen (and other
gases) in tanks to be utilized as needed. This has created a well-established
supply network that resembles a variety of petroleum-based fuels.
In recent years, however, electrolysis has emerged as a second option.
Proton Onsite, a hydrogen energy and gas provider in Wallingford,
Conn., uses electrolysis to manufacture on-site, high-purity gas generators called proton exchange membrane (PEMs) electrolyzers. They
work by running a current through a solid polymer electrolyte. This
electrolyte is a thin, specialized plastic membrane that is permeable to
protons when saturated with water, but does not conduct electrons. The
process of electrolysis draws a hydrogen ion (the “proton”) from deionized water and brings it through the membrane. Eventually, a number
of ions combine at the other end of the membrane to produce hydrogen
gas, leaving oxygen on the opposite side.
The Power of PEM
As a result of breakthroughs by federally funded research efforts and
the work of private industry, such as Proton Onsite, the market for components of PEMs and membrane electrode assemblies used in PEM fuel
cells (PEMFC) is growing. The market analysis firm Transparency Market
Research predicts a compounded growth of approximately 21.1% from
2012 to 2018, spurred by a general demand for reduced fossil fuel usage
and lower carbon emissions. As the technology improves, major players in
the fuel cell component marketplace will increase investments.
The R&D segment of the market now represents about 20% of Proton
Onsite’s current business. Due to an array of research applications that need
high-purity gas, Proton Onsite has developed a dozen different PEMs to suit
applications ranging from liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry to
Proton Onsite’s primary laboratory product is the HOGEN hydrogen
generator, which provides ultrahigh-purity hydrogen as a carrier gas with
consistent composition and predictable low levels of oxygen and nitrogen.
The HOGEN GC hydrogen generator is a simpler, less expensive, and less
complex PEM geared for gas chromatography. For larger laboratories, the
HOGEN S Series 20 and 40 hydrogen generation systems can supply carrier and fuel gas for up to 200 gas chromatographs.
“Many of our clients work in laboratories and facilities that are engaged
in R&D, ranging from analytical chemistry and mechanical engineering to
meteorological studies. Essentially, we supply technology for any application that requires a constant, pure supply of hydrogen, nitrogen, or zero
air,” says Dave Wolff, regional manager at Proton Onsite.
The growth in laboratory use can be explained by convenience. PEMs
can replace the need to procure, manage, and secure traditional sources
of delivered gas to the facility. Proton OnSites’ patented PEM electrolysis
technology produces hydrogen at 200 psig or higher, without the need for
mechanical compression, eliminating the need for high-pressure liquid
hydrogen tanks or compressed gas storage.
Scientists and researchers typically require hydrogen with ultrahigh
purity. They want the gas for fuel and as a reducing agent.
“The on-site gas generator supplies a benchtop by utilizing water, electricity, and air to produce the gases needed for analytical chemistry applications in most laboratories. Between 8 and 10% of facilities each year are
moving from gas generated onsite versus delivered gas in cylinders, as the
price for delivered gases continues to increase and on-site generated gas
costs remain stable. Also, in the case of helium, which is a dwindling natural resource, on-site alternatives are being considered as the gas becomes
scarcer,” says Wolff.
Proton Onsite also helps address a crucial question for laboratories
being fitted-out for gas supply: centralized utility infrastructure, or a
“There are a lot of factors in deciding whether to opt for several smaller
generators or one large centralized system,” says Wolff. “To determine
what scale will work best for any R&D application, a facility manager
must consider redundancy, security, and safety. A manager must also
Hydrogen generators are being eyed as the key to a renewable energy future.
But in laboratory research, they are already a common fixture.