‘The flow battery demonstrates the daring needed to accelerate the energy transition in Rotterdam’

  • Contenttype:
    • Interview
  • Themes:
    • Energy
    • Innovation
    • Maritime

The future of hydrogen lies in Rotterdam. Because that is precisely where the Hydro Generation sees and seizes opportunities to make history. The Hydro Generation is a group of pioneers who see Rotterdam as the place to achieve innovative CO2-neutral solutions. Willem-Jan van Dijk from Elestor and Mischa Lauret from Vopak are together aiming their sights on large-scale, cost-saving storage of sustainable energy with a flow battery based on hydrogen and bromine.

Rotterdam Europes Hydrogen Hub Elestor and Vopak
© Eric Fecken

Elestor and Vopak

It was the innovative company Elestor that took the plunge and knocked on the door of seasoned Rotterdam storage giant Vopak. ‘Your tanks are actually batteries,’ was their opening line. That immediately drew attention. The entrepreneur and the experienced liquids ‘hotelier’ joined forces. Two years after the agreement between Vopak and Elestor to supply an Elestor battery, the companies are now also engaged in a feasibility study to link the battery facilities to a hydrogen pipeline.

From small tanks to a large pipeline storage facility
Van Dijk, systems engineering team leader at Elestor, explains the technology of a flow battery. ‘This is a battery that stores energy in the form of different active materials. The difference with an ordinary battery is that the power is not stored in the battery cells, but in separate tanks. As a result, power [MW] and capacity [MWh] are not linked, and that is precisely what makes it possible to optimally bridge long periods economically.’

The battery is charged by splitting hydrogen bromide (HBr), which is stored in one tank, into bromine and hydrogen. The resulting hydrogen is stored in the other tank. When it discharges, these substances are recombined back into HBr. The two tanks are separated by a special membrane through which only hydrogen ions (protons) can pass. This allows power to be exchanged with the electricity grid in a controlled way.

Making it profitable

‘The secret is in the active materials you use,’ Lauret explains. The operations manager of New Energies & Feedstock at Vopak is keen to make Elestor’s innovation profitable. ‘What makes Elestor unique is that they use hydrogen and bromine: these are substances that are abundantly available, while other batteries require scarce and expensive metals. That means you can do it on a large scale, making it more profitable per kWh.’

For Vopak, it is important to investigate whether industrial-scale tanks can be safely used for the liquid part of the battery, where the hydrogen bromide is stored. The companies are also investigating whether a hydrogen pipeline can be used to store hydrogen, eliminating the need for a separate hydrogen tank. ‘By doing so, you ensure that you bring a low-cost alternative to the market in addition to energy security. And importantly: you contribute to a CO2-neutral energy supply,’ says Lauret.

Van Dijk adds: ‘Hydrogen is more than just a molecule. It is an energy carrier. Using it in combination with bromine to store green energy on a large scale gives hydrogen an extra dimension. This is a unique and novel application.’

100 hours of energy storage

The battery can store solar or wind energy for long periods, so it can be used when these sources are unavailable, such as at night or when there’s no wind. The ambition is to develop the technology to the point where it can store energy for 100 hours. The aim is to gradually scale up the electricity storage capacity of the flow batteries to as much as 250,000 kWh (250 MWh).

But it’s not yet that far. Developing this large battery will take several more years. Van Dijk. ‘We know what is technically required for the flow battery to operate on a large scale, and together with Vopak, we are developing the necessary large liquid tanks. Through the feasibility study, we now also know the requirements of the hydrogen networks and that one of Hynetwork Services’ pipelines runs past the Vopak site. So we’ll only need a ‘slip road’ to connect. But many questions remain to be answered, especially regarding permits and the business case.’

The SES grant has helped

The study is progressing well, thanks partly to financial support from the City of Rotterdam through the SES grant. ‘Thanks to the grant, we have been able to make considerable strides. What I find really unique about this process is how the municipality’s willingness helps us move forward,’ Lauret states. ‘Rotterdam’s open attitude has ensured greater access to various bodies. And permit providers are experienced; they know their way around hydrogen and bromine. We are taken seriously and feel very welcome.’

According to the two pioneers, Rotterdam is a forerunner in Europe when it comes to the hydrogen industry. This is partly due to the port’s favourable location and the number of large industrial parties buying hydrogen. ‘And there is a very concrete plan for new infrastructure focused on hydrogen. It’s actually well underway,’ Lauret says.

According to Van Dijk, this is necessary both to achieve the Paris goals and to stay ahead of the competition. ‘Everyone knows a significant energy transition must take place, and hydrogen contributes to that transition. Batteries cannot be excluded; it’s the only way to ensure a continuous supply of clean energy.’ Lauret adds: ‘Hydrogen is already being produced and imported in Rotterdam. Everything comes together here; Rotterdam is fast becoming the European hydrogen hub.’

Sharing knowledge and expertise

That a young, innovative company should seek to collaborate with a large, established party is only logical, according to Van Dijk and Lauret. ‘Elestor has the technology, and Vopak has the knowledge and expertise regarding the safe storage of hazardous substances, such as bromine. In addition, Vopak has experienced operators who are used to working on a large scale,’ says Van Dijk.

Lauret: ‘Failure is not an option. Safety is number one at Vopak. At the same time, we want to give room for Elestor’s entrepreneurial spirit. We have the ground to be able to do this in the port of Rotterdam. We have formed a good combination. And the collaboration is going very well. There is a lot of mutual trust.’

Hydro Generation: being daring

Both Van Dijk and Lauret are part of the Hydro Generation, a group of driven innovators who are seizing opportunities to accelerate the energy transition in Rotterdam through hydrogen. ‘I believe you have to be daring and help to really get that transition going instead of standing on the sidelines shouting that it has to be faster. The Rotterdam mentality appeals to me. I work hard to be part of the solution,’ says Van Dijk.

For Lauret, being part of the Hydro Generation means a lot, both privately and professionally. ‘It is such a relevant topic. I have the opportunity midway through my career to be part of such an impactful change. That’s incredibly interesting. And I’m really proud to tell my kids what I’m doing.’

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Please contact Lieuwe Brouwer: lm.brouwer@rotterdam.nl

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