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McPhy: working well under pressure

May 24, 2020
A Pangea SI Expert

Note – this article was originally published on gasworld.com

Hydrogen energy is at a turning point. Startups of the past decade are transitioning from R&D driven organisations to embrace industrialisation. Independent players are partnering with power companies or industrial gases majors to bring their technologies to international markets. McPhy is an example of a company managing this transformation as they prepare for a profitable future with a purpose. I spoke with Laurent Carme, CEO of McPhy to find out how they are navigating the dynamics in the high pressure, high growth hydrogen energy sector.

 

What is the history of McPhy?
LC: Our former CEO founded the company in 2008. The original idea was solid state storage of Hydrogen in metal hydrides branded McStore. We were a pure R&D outfit at that time. As markets evolved and technologies developed, we had to take the brave decision to transfer our focus from the original concept to work more closely with Hydrogen electrolysers and fuelling stations. Thanks to this diversification, we now offer customers an integrated offer of hydrogen production and distribution equipment. Hydrogen as a source of clean energy is the common thread that has defined our journey.

So, what corporate developments are in plan?
LC: Our product lines are now well defined, and proven. The next stage of the journey is what we refer to as ‘industrialisation’. We are focusing on standardisation of our products and alignment of our supply chains to their requirements. Scale will grow and costs will fall. That means that zero-carbon hydrogen, produced by electrolysis from renewables, will become more affordable – accelerating the roll out of competitive, high-performance zero-carbon hydrogen ecosystems. In fact, I joined McPhy a few months ago to oversee this transition.

The products that you have chosen to focus on, what are they?
LC: Two ranges will dominate. Hydrogen fuelling stations and large-scale power to hydrogen energy schemes. We work mostly with alkaline electrolyte systems, which are our core expertise. Alkaline electrolyte equipment avoids the need for water purification and has a proven track record over many decades. This provides a high degree of confidence in the reliability and extended lifetime of such equipment. So, for very large capital investments customers sometimes regard it as a low risk option. On the other hand, we can see potential for proton exchange membrane (PEM) systems: a technology for which McPhy has integration capabilities and good experience.

Beyond the track record point, how do PEM and alkaline electrolyte electrolyser technologies compare?
LC: That’s a great question. The reality is that hydrogen energy is still a comparatively new area and there have not been many instances where a true like for like comparison has been possible on a commercial scale. However, one of our latest Power to Gas projects, Jupiter 1000 will enable this. It has an installed capacity of 1MW split equally across an alkaline electrolyte system and a PEM electrolyser. Ask me this question again a year from now and I will be able to give you a very precise answer!

How are McPhy hydrogen electrolysers differentiated?
LC: One aspect is pressure. Our electrolysers operate at high pressure. We are not talking about 350 bar or 700 bar that hydrogen fuelling systems are designed for: in the electrolyser, high-pressure means 30 bar.

How does high-pressure in the electrolyser stack make a difference?
LC: It’s all about electrical current density and process intensity. Compared to an atmospheric pressure system, the high-pressure electrolyser technology can deliver a lot more hydrogen from a much smaller footprint. In fact, an atmospheric pressure system needs 3 to 5 times more space than ours. At McPhy, we work well under pressure!

Tell us more about the team working at McPhy.
LC: Since our foundation in France, in 2008, we have grown organically and through various acquisitions in Germany and Italy. Our commercial reach is global, and our industrial base is strongly anchored in Europe. In France, we have the capacity to produce more than 25 filling stations per year. And in Italy, we can turn out up to 300 MW of electrolyser capacity annually. So, we are an internationally diverse team. What binds us together is our mission and purpose. Our strategy centres on helping customers in the industrial, mobility and energy sectors to successfully transition to business models based on zero-carbon hydrogen, reconciling economic performance and corporate social responsibility.

How did you come to join the team?
LC: I have been working in renewables for most of my career. I spent many years working on wind farms. The buzz that I experience in the hydrogen sector today reminds me of how the wind sector was 10 or 15 years ago. At that time, it required vision and some calculated risk taking to ensure that wind power emerged to be the competitive and economical means of power production that it is today. Hydrogen production needs to follow the same journey.

So, what kind of skills do your people need, in addition to passion?
LC: Indeed, passion and purpose are not enough. We need deep curiosity and a taste for challenge to design innovative solutions in a fast-evolving environment; as well as a solid foundation of classical industrial and engineering skills. EDF is a major stake holder in McPhy and that is certainly at their core. Furthermore, as we industrialise our operation a focus on supply chain is essential. We want to achieve significant cost reductions through scale and efficiency. This will make our business more profitable and will mean that hydrogen can compete with conventional fossil fuels on an economic basis in addition to offering environmental benefits.

Talking about scale, what is the biggest project McPhy has been involved in?
LC: Well, that’s good timing. We have just announced our participation in an EU backed consortium to build a 20 MW electrolyser at the heart of a chemical park in Delfzijl, the NL. The funding will be from the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking and Waddenfonds. In addition to McPhy, the consortium involves five other partners*1 with a diverse range of expertise. We feel proud that our products have come through the rigorous evaluation process which placed a major emphasis on safety.

How much hydrogen will that produce?
LC: With that scale of electrolyser, the capacity is 3000 Tonnes per year. The electricity is from renewable sources, so this will be one of the largest zero-carbon hydrogen projects ever undertaken. Nouryon and Gasunie will jointly operate the plant and BioMCN will use the hydrogen to produce renewable methanol. There are discussions about increasing the capacity to 60 MW, so this project will really be a beacon for the future.

Coming onto hydrogen filling stations, how do you see the future?
LC: For heavy duty applications with buses garbage trucks, trains and boats we see a great future for hydrogen mobility. In the private vehicle domain, we see a mix of battery power and hydrogen emerging. Across this range, our products meet the needs of all scales of operation. For example, a train might take on 100kg to 200kg of hydrogen in a single fill at 350 bar. On the other hand, trucks take on 40 to 50 kg. Cars need smaller quantities of hydrogen, but the trend is for higher pressure at 700 bar to ensure that the hydrogen fuel tank fits neatly into the vehicle.

Are your two main product ranges complimentary?
LC: Indeed. We are seeing more and more demand for hydrogen filling stations with integrated hydrogen electrolysers. The alternative is to receive deliveries of hydrogen in trucks and store the gas at the filling station. In-situ production means less distribution of bulk hydrogen.

What potential do you see for hydrogen?
LC: Well, the Delfzijl example above takes us into chemical synthesis. Hydrogen is also used extensively on refineries to produce clean fuels. In the fossil fuel sector, it will also see increasing penetration to replace natural gas in our pipeline grids. Hydrogen is also increasingly being used for direction reduction in steel making. These types of applications are already on the radar. Beyond that, we believe that hydrogen will be also used to enable the decarbonisation of cement and ammonia production.

What will be required to ensure that hydrogen penetrates these applications?
LC: Zero-carbon hydrogen has environmental credentials, and this will be enough to stimulate change in some cases. But to drive large scale transformation, the use of hydrogen must be economically attractive compared to alternatives such as natural gas. This is one of the core motivations behind our strategic initiative to industrialise our operations to support the cost-effective production of clean hydrogen from renewable power sources.

*1 Consortium members: Nouryon, Gasunie, McPhy, De Nora, Bio MCN and Hinicio.

“Independent players are partnering with power companies or industrial gases majors to bring their technologies to international markets.”
Speak to the leading industrial gas Expert who wrote this article Expert Bio Expand

Expert Bio:
With a career spanning 25+ years within the energy and chemical sectors, this Expert has held various international leadership roles for 10+ years, and received several European Business/Technology Innovation awards.

Key roles and experiences include:
Principal at a leading international Energy & Chemicals consulting company:
– Energy and chemicals sector consulting for private equity investors, corporate clients and small & medium enterprises worldwide.

Managing Director of own Consulting company:
– Industrial gases, hydrogen, LNG, carbon dioxide and specialty gases industry expert.
– Consultant on numerous M&A transactions.
– Advisor to international private equity funds; financial and consulting firms.
– Strategic growth consulting for companies at all levels in the industrial gases value chain
– Engaged in consulting projects regarding: Refrigerant Gases, Gas Cylinders and Valves, Digital transformation and e-commerce, Marketing strategy and sales effectiveness, Product development and commercialisation, Business strategy development and growth planning.

Global Head of Specialty Gases & Equipment at Linde Gas, a DAX30 Industrial Gases “blue-chip” company:
– Worked globally with local business teams in 40 countries spanning six continents.
– Led consistent profitable growth ahead of market, achievement of world leading market share and establishment of a high impact global brand.

Global Director, Specialty Gases at BOC Gases, a FTSE100 Industrial Gases “blue-chip” company.

Relevant Educational Background:
– Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering.

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