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Nel’s PEM: built on 20 years of experience

Everett Anderson

Vice President, Advanced Product Development

Key points

The background of the founders of Nel's US operations is rooted in ‘PEM water electrolysis for life support’ applications

Hype around the U.S. hydrogen industry started to appear in the early 2000s, but took nearly two decades to really take off

PEM technology is growing rapidly, with several projects in the making pushing it forward

The history of Nel Hydrogen US is as significant for the American hydrogen industry development as the history of Nel is for Norway.Nel Hydrogen US (formerly known as Proton Energy Systems, Inc. and Proton OnSite) – acquired by Nel in 2017 – originated in 1996 with the idea that PEM technologies could be applied for commercial hydrogen generation in both current industrial and emerging energy markets. The founders came from the aerospace industry where the focus was on ‘PEM water electrolysis for life support.’ In the second half of 2000, Proton Energy Systems, Inc. filed an IPO and raised enough capital to expand its capabilities and fund its plan. However, it appeared that the time was not yet right for hydrogen. 

US hydrogen: false start in 2000s but rise 20 years later

The hype around the U.S. hydrogen industry started to appear in the early 2000s. The federal administration laid out several funding initiatives around hydrogen development. However, the U.S. Dept. of Energy switched its’ attention to batteries due to a perceived nearer term market maturity, sceptically noting that hydrogen fuel cells would need “four miracles” to succeed in the overall energy space.It took the industry 20 years to prove the opposite. Resurgence was supported by a general trend for an energy transition, OEMs shifting towards hydrogen fuel cell development, and most recently, a significant reduction in renewable energy costs. Simultaneously, the company had also scaled its products to the market needs, offering PEM electrolysis technology at megawatt scale.Currently, natural gas is leading the energy markets in the U.S. However, accounting for the additional costs of carbon emissions from fossil fuels can potentially push the market to move forward towards hydrogen, building a solid ground for the industry. 

PEM electrolyser: from the lab to manufacturing environment

PEM technology is growing rapidly and there are several projects in the making that are pushing it forward. One such project is the development of a megawatt size electrolyser cell stack and the product platform it will be integrated into. The main challenge is to create a larger stack design that leverages the current capabilities of the supply chain to maximize total cost reduction while minimizing technology risk.Another area where the PEM side of our Electrolyser division is focused on now relates to a manufacturability of our products. We have work ongoing in roll-to-roll processing to drive cost down as volumes increase. Development of such areas requires close collaboration with our public and private partners, giving us the platform to move from the laboratory to the  commercial manufacturing floor. 

What’s next?

As part of Nel, we have the best of both worlds: a diversified product portfolio that includes both U.S. and European operations to serve all our markets. I also want to emphasize that leveraging our strong foundation, Nel has a clear product and technology roadmap strategy, the confidence in our ability to reduce costs and scale-up product size and volume in order to provide the right product to the right market at the price needed to take the hydrogen economy forward.  Our decades of experience have us uniquely positioned for the exciting hydrogen road ahead!