Feature from Issue 4 of the Hydrogen Standard Magazine, available to download here
Charlie Thannhäuser is half German and half American and learned to program at a young age while he lived in Dusseldorf, Germany. We sat down with him to find out how his love for coding evolved into a presence in the hydrogen space.
Back in the mid-90s, at the age of 16, when all his classmates were doing ordinary stuff, Thannhäuser started his own web design company. “It was at a time when websites were far and few between, where only the large companies had a digital presence, mainly consisting of a single page,” he explains.
His talent was quickly recognised and Thannhäuser landed his first big customer, BMW dealership, while still in high school. His website company eventually went into 3D software. Thannhäuser eventually sold his code to a leading video gaming software company, at the age of 23.
By the early 2000s, Thannhäuser was wondering what to focus on next. “I told myself to look at it from a standpoint of longevity, focussing on a venture that could stand the test of time,” he says. “I narrowed it down to three main areas: renewable energy, drinking water and hydrogen.”
Hydrogen got him excited as it can solve all energy needs. Thannhäuser thinks it can become a viable alternative to oil in the future. However, it must be generated in a sustainable way.
Generating hydrogen through steam methane reforming (SMR) would still require fossil fuels, which was not an option for him. Producing green hydrogen using an electrolyser also has challenges.
“For one, electrolysers in general have a low efficiency, typically between 50% to 60%, and require a constant and enormous amount of energy,” Thannhäuser says. “Providing that renewable energy is challenging given its intermittency.”
“At the same time, it requires water, something I believe we will have a scarcity of in the future, which is also a problem.” Because of this, Thannhäuser looked at a more interesting solution: generating hydrogen through biomass. He started studying the topic and realised 65% of all global waste streams consist of biomass.
“Our waste stream is really a problem that we really need to find a way to deal with in a more efficient and sustainable manner,” Thannhäuser says.
He purchased three engineering packages that contained different ways of converting waste to hydrogen and learned two things. First, none of them was purely focussed on maximising waste to generate hydrogen. Second, they all had the same issue: generating tremendous amounts of tar.
Tars generally tend to be produced due to partial oxidation following combustion in a vessel. “Due to the rise in temperature difference across the vessel, condensation tends to increase, which in turn stimulates the formation of tars,” Thannhäuser says.
“Tars are a killer for your gasification process as they clog everything up. They contain a lot of energy, which makes the overall gasification process, the generation of hydrogen, less efficient. You cannot use a final product filled with tar. It significantly reduces your hydrogen output.”
Thannhäuser asked himself: “How do other industries deal with these temperatures?”
He started his journey for answers by contacting some ex-NASA professionals. They came back with a simple answer: ceramic beads with aluminium-oxide. Filling the vessels with ceramic beads stores and distributes the heat extremely well.
“This way, you can guarantee full conversion of solid waste to hydrogen,” he explains.
At Thannhäuser’s company, Concord Blue, hydrogen production involves three stages, each in a vessel arranged in a line. A preheater vessel on top contains ceramic beads, which are heated to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius.
The beads flow down, due to gravity, through the middle vessel, a reformer, to a thermolyser at the bottom. This vessel mixes the heated ceramic beads with prepared feedstock. As the high temperatures decompose the feedstock in this oxygen-starved vessel, so-called syngas is released.
As gas naturally rises, the productgas starts to flow upwards the reformer. Steam is injected to reform the productgas into hydrogen-rich syngas. The raw syngas produced in the reformer vessel is sent for cleaning, processing, storage and transport.
Pressure swing adsorption is then used to separate out the hydrogen from other gases to produce a high quality gas ready for commercial usage in a wide range of applications.
Concord Blue is qualified to be chemical recycler, able to take material that usually gets sold to cement plants and incinerators and doesn’t count for recycling. The company has access to a stream of millions of tonnes of waste that companies want to get rid of.
Despite the company’s name, “I find the colours associated with hydrogen production silly and misleading,” Thannhäuser says. “The purpose of this exercise is to reduce emissions. Therefore, you must look at the net carbon footprint of each technological solution.”
“For example, somewhat counterintuitively, blue hydrogen could be emission free, while a lot of green hydrogen can have a tremendous carbon footprint.”
“Australia, for example, plans to produce hydrogen with renewable power through electrolysis but ship the gas to Europe in diesel-powered boats. In such a case, even some SMR technologies would be more environmentally friendly if they include an efficient carbon storage or utilisation solution.”
Technological evolution and making profits
Technological choice and ecological impact are important, but so are the economics, he says. “No-one is going invest in a solution if they do not expect to make any money. In the end of the day, people mainly care about the profitability,” says Thannhäuser.
According to Thannhäuser, Concord Blue can produce green hydrogen at €2 per kilo. This is considerably lower than electrolysis-generated green hydrogen, which ranges between €5 and €8 per kilo.
Furthermore, Concord Blue overcomes a common drawback of green hydrogen production based on conventional wind and solar energy: both sources are intermittent. An electrolyser needs a constant stream of electricity and cannot easily be switched on and off.
As such, electrolysers are often fed conventual power, which may come from fossil fuel generation, particularly in Germany. That presents a problem for green hydrogen’s green image. “One solution would be to store the excess green electricity in batteries to smooth electricity fed into an electrolyser, but they are expensive and have a carbon footprint in terms of their production, and there is no solution for disposing of the toxic batteries at the end of their lives” says Thannhäuser.
Concord Blue wants to make production efforts decentralised, to produce hydrogen where it is needed. However, compressing hydrogen, to facilitate transport, is also possible.
The company has concluded that if its technology were implemented on all global waste streams it would generate 1.3 times the amount of global energy required annually.
“This was an ‘aha’ moment for us—it became clear this technology has massive potential to be deployed on a large scale,” says Thannhäuser. “Our situation is unique in the sense that the waste is already available and needs to be treated, waste currently is the fourth largest source of emissions.”
In addition, he says: “Our technology has a relatively small footprint. The construction is 50 metres high. It is ideal for dense urban places such as Singapore and New York, where a lot of waste is generated and little space available to deal with it.”
Normal waste streams can generate methane gas, which is approximately 20 times more potent than CO2. Unfortunately, those waste streams are only likely to increase. As such, there is a strong need to deal with waste in a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative way.
With incineration, toxins get released into the atmosphere and there is a low net electrical efficiency of up to 20%, compared Concord Blue’s reformer, which can generate on average up to 40%.
Compared to electrolysis, Concord Blue’s efficiency is lower, but with the added benefit that the feedstock is cheap or free and “even without carbon capture we are still certified to be net carbon-negative,” Thannhäuser says.
The Concord Blue process also has more flexibility in terms of additional features to increase the efficiency of the process and usable waste streams. The carbon captured from waste can be sequestered in char or stored to be mixed with hydrogen for sustainable aviation fuel.
In addition, Concord Blue is partnering with companies that can use the carbon for agricultural purposes, such as tomato or production. Waste ash, meanwhile, can be used in cement. On average, Concord Blue can deal with 98% of the waste streams in the system.
Contaminated ash would have to be landfilled but represents only a tiny volume.
Concord Blue has two business models: selling to the customer directly and working with engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies, or being the EPC company for customers, developing projects from scratch.
This would involve going to the market to source long waste stream agreements, source the land, partner with a local waste treatment company and build the reformers. The reformers are built to order. In Germany the company assembles on site.
The company would then go to market to find investors in pension funds, hedge funds and other investors keen on ESG-related investment opportunities. “In Germany we are ready to set up such a platform,” says Thannhäuser.
“We have five facilities in Northwest Germany, worth €500 million. €280 million has been secured. The lead investor is a Swiss financial management company. The second investor we are looking for can collaborate on equity or debt financing.”
Concord Blue wants to get a foot in as many markets and as quickly as possible. “Speed to market is most important for us,” says Thannhäuser.
One of the major challenges to date is the ability to secure long-term offtake agreements. “Conventional infrastructure investment has 20-year offtake agreements,” says Thannhäuser. “At least, that has generally been the case. However, there has been a shift in the last six months.”
“Commitments are more difficult to achieve. Many companies do not want to take long-term off-take agreements due to hydrogen’s price uncertainty.”
Despite this, Thannhäuser still thinks hydrogen will become a valuable commodity, which would make it easier to sell six-month contracts on a spot basis. Waste is expected to be certified as a renewable source soon. Society must get rid of it somehow.
The legislation has not considered this type of technology yet, but once it does—and work on that is ongoing—Concord Blue’s prospects will get even better.
Feature from Issue 4 of the Hydrogen Standard Magazine, available to download here