Using cartridges to store hydrogen may not be a new idea, but it is one that has never been successfully implemented – until now. Aaqius, a technology supplier based in Switzerland, has developed a unit called Stor-H, which is well on its way to becoming a viable option in several countries. The handy cartridge is intended to power vehicles in not only France, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates but also China. H2-international spoke with the chairman of Aaqius’ board of directors, Stéphane Aver, about the Stor-H technology, the planned cartridge vending machines and ambitious production targets.
H2-international: Mr. Aver, would you mind sketching out what your basic idea is?
Aver: Stor-H is the world’s first energy standard for the connected, digital, 21st century sustainable economy. The 20th century ended eighteen years ago. So much has changed in our lives since then but we have still not innovated in the way we produce, distribute and consume energy. Look at how Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, AirBnB have changed the way we consume information, shop for goods, consume mobility, and travel. And in the world of “hardware” look at how Tesla has revolutionized mindsets in the automotive industry. In green energy, the current 700 bar hydrogen storage standard, requiring multi-million Euro infrastructure investments for each filling station reflects a 20th century approach to the problem. Stor-H, through its solid storage of green hydrogen in safe, easy-to-use connected cartridges distributed in state-of-the art vending machines, accessible through a smartphone APP, radically changes all of this.
How did you approach this concept?
Aver: Aaqius specializes in the development, industrialization and market deployment of innovative and disruptive “low-carbon” technology standards for the energy and mobility sector worldwide. Our focus on technology standards, and on integrated local ecosystems, is our way of de-risking our investments and ensuring broad market penetration. With our Stor-H cartridges, vending machines, IT platform and smartphone APP, what we are really doing is transforming traditional energy consumption into a connected, digital service that is particularly suited for light urban mobility. Protected by over 150 patents, the Stor-H technology enables the solid storage of hydrogen, at very low pressures, in safe easy-to-use cartridges that can be distributed in vending machines, thus eliminating the need for expensive and intrusive infrastructure.
Since when are you working on this concept?
Aver: Since 2006, Aaqius has to-date successfully created three “low-CO2” technology solutions in the area of engine emissions controls (local pollutants, particulates, NOX after-treatment). Each solution has already become a global standard in the automotive industry. In 2009 we launched our internal development of a disruptive means of storing hydrogen safely and easily in order to accelerate the deployment of “zero-CO2” mobility. And once again, our focus is on creating a technology standard on a worldwide scale.
In November 2017, during the Dubai Airshow, Michael Levy, your vice president of research and innovation, and Dubai Aviation City Corp. signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct a feasibility study. What is the objective of this study?
Aver: Dubai wants to create a logistics hub for the 21st century: sustainable, ecological, zero-CO2, and using the latest innovations our century has to offer. This is why they chose Stor-H for deployment in Dubai South. This is an emerging 145 sq. km master-planned smart-city that is the Emirate’s flagship urban project. It is projected to sustain a population of a million, and is designed to support every conceivable kind of business and industry. It is home to the world’s largest airport in the making – the Al Maktoum International Airport – and is host to landmark events such as World Expo 2020 and the Dubai Airshow. Furthermore, Dubai South is to be a sustainable city with a minimal carbon footprint.
Shortly before the show, Aaqius had entered into partnership with the city of Marrakesh, its local university and the Research Institute for Solar Energy and New Energies, also known as IRESEN. It was reported that 50,000 two-wheeled, three-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles would receive a hydrogen upgrade by 2021. The number of motorbike upgrades alone was said to be adding up to 20,000 units. How do you intend to achieve these targets?
Aver: In Morocco, as in each of the geographical areas where we are deploying Stor-H, we always go through the same steps that have helped us succeed in the past: performing a technical and economic feasibility study of the local ecosystem, and putting in place the required relationships with industrial partners and national/regional/local authorities.
What about Censtar Science & Technology Corp. in China? How successful has the cooperation been? It was said that until the end of 2018, you wanted to develop your technology to a point at which around 100,000 electric vehicles, including bikes, heavy-duty trikes, scooters, golf carts and forklifts, used in Jiangbei, a new economic development area in Nanjing, could be equipped with Stor-H cartridges in two years’ time. Afterward, you would start offering products on the national market. Is this project on schedule?
Aver: The deployment of Stor-H in China is on schedule; our focus now is on seeing how we can accelerate our progress to move ahead of schedule. The market opportunity in China is huge and we have to move fast. The Chinese government is focused on revolutionizing the way they produce, distribute and consume energy.
At ICC 2017 in Beijing, China’s economy minister presented you with the Cleantech Award for Stor-H. Is the People’s Republic more open than its European counterparts to adopting hydrogen technologies?
Aver: It is absolutely clear that the People’s Republic of China is more open than Europe to adopt hydrogen technologies, and in particular Stor-H. They have already understood that hydrogen is an essential part of the energy mix for tomorrow’s mobility, for example.
On Jan. 15, Aaqius unveiled a vending machine for hydrogen cartridges during the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, where you shared exhibition space with other organizations from Switzerland. How does the device work?
Aver: With Stor-H, we are leveraging on cutting-edge innovations in logistics, point-of-sale distribution, and cloud-based e-commerce, to make energy consumption and mobility easier for our users. The Stor-H vending machine is an integral part of the connected digital ecosystem that allows users to exchange their empty cartridges for full ones.
How and where are the cartridges filled? Has there already been a service to pick up empty units, refill them and take them back to a dealer?
Aver: We have several options for the refilling of our cartridges. In areas where hydrogen service stations are already in place (350 bar, 700 bar) we can integrate on-site filling units to leverage on this existing infrastructure. This also shows that our new energy standard, low-pressure Stor-H cartridges, is in fact complementary with the high-pressure standard that is used for vehicles (> 1,5 t; ex, the Toyota Mirai). In parts of the world where the 700 bar infrastructure is not yet in place we are partnering with industrial companies (such as Censtar in China) to build dedicated centralized facilities. The logistic services are needed to take the cartridges from the filling sites to the vending machines (and back again) are already in place. Once again, whenever possible, we integrate our specific Stor-H ecosystem requirements into existing services and infrastructure. This is what we need to do to accelerate our deployment and optimize costs.
Is it true that to operate these units, you need nothing more than the Stor-H App on your smartphone?
Aver: Absolutely! With the Stor-H cartridges, vending machines and App, energy becomes a digital connected service that can be easily accessed and consumed in a broad catalog of applications. Our proprietary IT platform and its smartphone app allows both businesses (BTB) and consumers (BTC) access to the Stor-H ecosystem, where they can manage their mobility and/or their energy needs. The IT platform and app allow the Stor-H business model to be easily replicated and scaled up during the rollout of the Stor-H ecosystem worldwide. Furthermore, state-of-the art IT technologies are implemented to enable optimal user experience for both BTB and BTC consumers.
Your company has stated that the cartridges work at very low pressures. What is the basis for your storage design? So far, the only thing you’ve said was that inert hydrogen is stored in a complex, multi-material and ultra-absorbent medium. Metal hydrides or sodium borohydrides come to mind. Is either of these storage methods out of the question?
Aver: First of all it is important to note that we developed, validated and industrialized our cartridge know-how with an earlier application, the solid storage of ammonia for automotive emissions controls. This intellectual property was licensed in 2013 to a major automotive Tier1 supplier. Our fundamental know-how is thus applicable to many different type of storage materials and applications. It is based on innovative ways to integrate storage materials into easy-to-use digitally connected cartridges and in fact we are agnostic as to the specific storage material used in our cartridges.
Could you tell us the size and weight of your cartridges?
Aver: The Stor-H energy standard has two basic cartridge sizes for our BTC applications (2/3/4 wheel vehicles, low power stationary applications) and a cartridge pack configuration for our BTB applications (ground support equipment, material handling equipment, high power stationary applications).
I’ve read that you equipped as many as 100 scooters with the technology in Paris and Asia. Tests were said to have been successful. Does this mean that Aaqius has production lines up and running for both the storage units and the scooters? Where are those production facilities and what is their capacity? How many cartridges or vehicles can you manufacture per year?
Aver: In the past we have relied on prototyping partners with limited scale-up possibilities. Now that we need to ramp-up in Morocco, Dubai, China we have had to find partners with industrial capabilities. For each of the key physical items in the Stor-H ecosystem (cartridges, fuel cells, vending machines, vehicles, IT servers) we have made local/global sourcing decisions in order to optimize investments and operating expenses.
Where do you get your hydrogen from?
Aver: Stor-H is focused on green hydrogen.
Am I right in assuming that, overall, you support a move away from private transportation to increased vehicle sharing?
Aver: Frankly, this is not a key issue for us. There will always be private transportation, public transportation and vehicle sharing. And today it is not clear that the vehicle sharing models are economically sustainable. This is why we decided early on not to base our Stor-H business model on any specific transportation mode. We follow customer usage, and for this reason Stor-H is multi-modal.
Recently, you mentioned that you don’t want to be dependent on batteries in the same way people have relied on oil for all this time. What advantages does hydrogen have over batteries?