Methanol vs Hydrogen: As Blue World gets underway on world’s largest methanol fuel cell manufacturing, who’s the best?

September 24, 2019 |

There’s been a debate in recent years over methanol vs hydrogen as the fuel of choice for fuel cells. Now, both are energy carriers rather than energy sources — and ultimately, they have some of the same drawbacks and advantages — some of which go back to handling and safety concerns when used at scale by distracted consumers. For fleets, the concerns fade to a great extent. Advent has a backgrounder on this out earlier this year.

What’s happening on the methanol fuel cell front? From Denmark we have news that the world’s largest methanol fuel cell factory is now under construction at the Port of Aalborg, and will have a yearly production capacity of 750 MW, equivalent to 50,000 fuel cell units. The groundbreaking is an important milestone in realising the vision of Blue World Technologies: to be the leading supplier of methanol fuel cells and eventually to retire the combustion engine.

The construction of the new production facilities is expected to be finished by the end of Q1 2020, after which the installation of the highly automated production equipment will begin. The production is planned to start in the late summer of 2020 and from then ramp-up to reach full production capacity in 2023-24. The production will primarily focus on the key fuel cell components such as the bipolar plates, membranes and electrodes.

The methanol fuel cell

As a hybrid-setup in combination with a small battery pack, the methanol fuel cell acts as a range extender delivering long range, fast refuelling with a liquid fuel as well as addressing the worldwide problems with air pollution. Using methanol as fuel provides the opportunity to reuse the already existing fuelling infrastructure, and when using green methanol produced from renewable sources, the fuel will be CO2 neutral from a well-to-wheel perspective.

The Blue World HT PEM-technology operates at 160-180 °C and has a high resistance to impurities in reformat gas which makes it ideal to combine with fuel reformers. The combination can be done without the implementation of expensive and cumbersome clean-up technologies which enables a simple and cost-effective system design. The HT PEM-technology is characterized by simple heat management and a minimum balance of plant components which in turn reduces the parasitic losses to run the system. The simple system design enables a high total system power density although the stack power density is lower than generic stack designs.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“This is an important day, not only for us but for the world. When we started Blue World Technologies, it was with an aim to make a difference in the world. We wanted to take the fuel cell technology – that we have been working on for the past two decades – from development stage to large-scale commercial production. With the groundbreaking we are now one step closer to supplying a solid green alternative to the combustion engine”, said Anders Korsgaard, CEO of Blue World Technologies when he addressed the guests at the groundbreaking ceremony.

“The story of Blue World Technologies is a story of innovation and sustainability. Our planet hungers for new and more environmentally friendly solutions to stop climate change – solutions based on smart thinking and tomorrow’s technology. Blue World Technologies is part of the answer”, stated Thomas Kastrup-Larsen, Mayor of Aalborg, at the groundbreaking ceremony. From a local perspective he added: “As Mayor, I am very excited about the project. Blue World Technologies will not only strengthen Aalborg’s position within green energy but also support our goal to become Denmark’s Green Test Center”.

The Blue World backstory

The company has grown from three founders to a team of 37 people, and when reaching full production in 2023-24, it is expected that the team will have grown to more than 500 people. In early spring 2019, Blue World Technologies closed a successful seed-round investment, and currently, the company is in the process of the next investment round which is expected to close within the next couple of months.

Blue World Technologies is working closely together with R&D departments at OEMs within the automotive industry, and the first cars are expected to hit the roads for test during the first half of 2020. The AIWAYS U5 SUV is one of the platforms that Blue World Technologies – in close collaboration with AIWAYS – is working on integrating the methanol fuel cell technology for. Earlier this year, AIWAYS entered as a shareholder in Blue World Technologies as a strategic decision to accommodate the overall goal of the company of creating the next generation of sustainable vehicles.

Why Aalborg, exactly?

Due to China being the largest market for electric vehicles in the world, Blue World Technologies has from the very beginning had a strong 

focus on the Chinese market both regarding investors, production equipment and potential customers.  

The Chinese-Nordic Innovation Center has offices both in Shanghai and in Aalborg. Its main purpose is to assist companies and universities in building stronger relations, business opportunities and sharing knowledge across borders. CNIC is the result of a cooperation agreement between the City of Aalborg and the Chinese organisation National Tech-Transfer Center (NETC).  In the autumn of 2018, Aalborg was selected as the organisation’s 9th innovation center in the entire world putting Aalborg at par with cities like Amsterdam, Boston, Singapore and Toronto. Aalborg is the Chinese gateway to the Nordic Countries and vice versa when it comes to promoting tech transfer and building stronger relations.

The Bottom Line

We’re keeping a sharp eye on methanol, especially for fleets and especially where methanol can be produced from waste — for example, Enerkem methanol technology using municipal solid waste. We’re not sure it has the near-term promise of hydrogen fuel cells, but Blue World is showing it has strong potential, especially in China where methanol adoption has been more popular. 

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