There is fairly widespread agreement among scientists and regulators that the world needs an acceleration in the hydrogen economy to make net zero happen. Ironically, the move to clean energy is going to rely on PFAS, a toxic chemistry surrounded by a raging debate.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have a habit of turning up anywhere and everywhere, including in ionomers, a fundamental component in Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells and electrolysis for carbon-free hydrogen production. Ionomers have three jobs, isolating the electrodes from each other to prevent short circuits, acting as an electrolyte and providing a membrane to stop oxygen mixing with hydrogen, according to Hydrogen Europe.
Of all the risks attached to highly-flammable hydrogen, the biggest topic for discussion in the world of fuel cells is the use of PFAS in ionomers, according to Liam Condon, CEO of PEM supplier Johnson Matthey Plc.
Given the incentives and the vast sums of money pouring into hydrogen projects, it’s hard to imagine anything derailing this nascent industry. But visit a coatings trade show, and this toxic chemistry built around a carbon-fluorine bond is foremost in people’s minds. Questions are being asked about the risks of PFAS push back when it comes to the scale up of hydrogen.
Europe is evaluating a ban on all PFAS, yet there’s some reprieve for their use in applications deemed to be critical. It’s hard, very hard, to imagine electrolysers and fuel cells won’t fall into the essential category. Condon certainly feels things will go their way. Johnson Matthey’s fortunes could be transformed by demand for PEMs.
“The industry is going to need this and PFAS in many products. It’s important that they are classified as essential use products in the current regulatory discussions,” Condon told investors this week.
“For what we are getting as feedback, that seems to be on track.”
Unlike non-stick pans, where ceramic compounds and PET have replaced PFAS, finding an alternative in PEMs is not an easy task. To its detriment and benefit, the chemistry is often in a class of its own when it comes to some functions, including oil repellency.
PFAS will be a blemish on the hydrogen value chain. It’s looking like the focus will be on work-arounds until an alternative is proven.
“What we have been discussing with regulatory authorities is that we can have a closed loop solution so that the product never actually enters the environment,” Condon said. “We also do research and development on PFAS free alternative ionomers but that’s a long way away.”