Research and Development

Refinery Hydrogen Power Pilot Takes Shape in Australia

An industrial-scale pilot plant that will use surplus hydrogen from refinery operations to produce power is taking shape in Australia.

Industrial alkaline fuel cell power company AFC Energy on July 12 said it received its first commercial order for a hydrogen power generation unit in Australia from Southern Oil Refining, a subsidiary of Northern Oil.

Fuel cells convert fuel directly into power, and alkaline fuel cells are the oldest and “most reliable” of all fuel cell chemistries. They are used widely in space and submarine applications, the company said. “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’s alkaline fuel cell technology converts oxygen (from the air) and hydrogen (from a supply) into electrical energy, producing demineralized water and heat as byproducts.

The company recently wrapped up a two-year pilot in Germany at an industrial plant owned by Air Products, which accepted hydrogen from Dow Chemicals. The project, POWER-UP, was a European Union–backed demonstration.

The new pilot, expected to be sized between 200 kW and 400 kW, will be located at Northern Oil’s Advanced Biofuels Refinery, near Gladstone, Australia. The refinery currently converts several waste streams, including from sugarcane bagasse, “green waste” from cities, woody weeds like prickly acacia, and tires as feedstock for the production of bio-crude oil. The renewable fuel is refined into saleable kerosene and diesel products, but it requires large volumes of industrial stable biohydrogen to support the refining process.

Northern Oil is developing a new hydrogen generation technology that uses steam over iron reduction and chemical looping to deliver hydrogen, processes that are reportedly cheaper than conventional steam methane reformation. Surplus hydrogen generated from this system is expected to be consumed by AFC’s fuel cell system.

AFC said the pilot power system could be delivered to the Gladstone refinery in the first half of 2019. The company is now conducting engineering studies to determine the final project size, scope, contract terms, and general logistics for integration of the hydrogen power generation unit fuel system into the refinery. “AFC Energy plans to sell the balance of plant for its hydrogen generation unit to Southern Oil and lease the system’s stack and electrodes for an undisclosed sum reflective of the project’s capital cost [including fuel cells],” it said in a statement.

Northern Oil’s Gladstone refinery, which is backed by the Australian government, the government of Queensland, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, was the first of its type when completed in 2017.

According to Southern Oil CEO Tim Rose, the hydrogen-powered technology could help the renewable refinery generate its own power. “In developing the Gladstone Advanced Biofuels Pilot Plant over the last three years, Southern Oil has benchmarked cutting edge renewable technologies from around the world. In my mind, AFC Energy’s Alkaline Fuel Cell has great potential,” he said.

An estimated 100 GWe of hydrogen is vented to the atmosphere from industry each year, noted Adam Bond, AFC’s CEO. “The order received for the Company’s fuel cell system reflects the first stages of a growing pipeline of commercial fuel cell projects in country and validates the opportunities we believe to be emerging in the Australian hydrogen market.”


—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)

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