Water Splitting Is Ready for the Mass Market

State of the art of electrolyzer technologies, © Fraunhofer ISE

The splitting of water to produce hydrogen will become a requirement if renewable electricity is to be converted into other energy carriers and industrial base materials to transform the energy market and meet climate targets in Germany. Expectations are that by 2050, electrolyzer capacity will run into the tens of gigawatts countrywide. Nowadays, most devices are either customized or manufactured in small numbers. As part of a study conducted on behalf of the German transportation ministry, researchers have explored options for turning the electrolysis of water into a powerful and fundamental component of a future energy system and probed the challenges that Germany will encounter when establishing a new gigawatt-size industry.

Even today, there are technologically advanced methods for splitting water, such as alkaline and, for the most part, PEM electrolysis. By contrast, high-temperature electrolysis has only recently entered the commercial stage. In the study period, researchers surveyed businesses in the industry to determine state-of-the-art production techniques and to ask what progress of a technical and economic nature could be expected regarding each type of technology.


The findings show that, for example, there is still considerable potential for increasing system lifetime, whereas all three technologies already run at high electrical efficiency. Likewise, the manufacture of systems and components continues to offer significant cost-saving opportunities. These could be exploited by either technological advances or, above all, economies of scale through a substantial increase in production output.

In addition, globally leading suppliers were asked about their manufacturing techniques and processes and the rate at which they could increase capacity. The response was that capacity could be revved up to an annual 2 gigawatts worldwide by 2020 (see fig. 1). European businesses would contribute approximately two-thirds to the total, which would be dominated by suppliers from the chloralkali industry. This industry has the proper supply chains available for a timely expansion of large-scale water electrolysis, although it has only recently begun to cater to the market.

Over the last two to three years in particular, the observation was that suppliers of electrolyzers were preparing for an eventual ramp-up of capacity and were only waiting for the right kind of support. Although the industry may still regard research, development and demonstration projects as needed for growth, sufficient market demand will be central to technological progress and cost cutting, as well as improvements to production processes.


read more: H2-international October 2018


Written by: Dr. Tom Smolinka, Fraunhofer-Institut für Solare Energiesysteme ISE, Freiburg, Germany

Franz Lehner, E4tech, Lausanne, Switzerland

Steffen Kiemel, Fraunhofer‐Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung IPA, Stuttgart, Germany

Dr. Geert Tjarks, NOW GmbH Nationale Organisation Wasserstoff- und Brennstoffzellentechnologie, Berlin, Germany

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