TNO explores PFAS alternatives with European partners

Thema:
Energy transition pathways
Clean hydrogen production
17 May 2024

Together with Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Netherlands has proposed restrictions on the production and use of PFAS – substances that include fluorine compounds. However, phasing out PFAS could have short-term adverse effects on the energy transition. The Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolysers and PEM fuel cells, necessary for producing and using hydrogen, contain a fluorine membrane. TNO is collaborating with research institutions and companies to develop alternatives.

Joint approach

In a joint statement, European Research and Technology Organizations (RTOs), including TNO, outline their strategy to address this issue and the roles governments and businesses can play. PFAS materials are used in various products, components, and processes, including the semiconductor industry, which supplies components for a wide range of microelectronics. Additionally, fluorine compounds are present in numerous medical products.

Download the 'Joint Statement of European RTOs on PFAS' here

Fluorine-free electrolysers

In research with other RTOs, TNO has focused on making the hydrogen chain function without PFAS. Besides PEM electrolysers, which split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and fuel cells that convert hydrogen back into electricity in vehicles or machinery, PFAS are also used in other parts of the value chain.

“PEM is one of the four common electrolyser technologies but has become dominant in Europe alongside alkaline electrolysers. European companies have a strong global position in developing and producing PEM electrolyser technology. PEM technology is expected to play a significant role in hydrogen production in the coming decade, so it's crucial to develop fluorine-free electrolysers with companies in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe,” says TNO expert Lennart van der Burg.

Implications for businesses

Simultaneously, TNO, commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, is researching the implications of phasing out PFAS for businesses. This research aims to answer questions about where and to what extent PFAS is currently used in the hydrogen chain, what technological innovations are needed to significantly reduce dependence on PFAS, and how the entire chain could operate without PFAS in the future. In doing so, TNO researchers also consider developments in new generations of electrolysers expected in the coming decade.

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"We are currently testing promising solutions with a few innovative frontrunners to develop a fluor free membrane."

Lennart van der Burg

Cluster Manager Green Hydrogen

Promising solutions

“We are identifying new technologies and materials needed to produce fluorine-free electrolysers and fuel cells and scale them up as quickly as possible,” says Lennart. “Much emphasis will be placed on researching new materials that can serve as alternatives to current fluorine compounds. This is a complex puzzle because the alternative material must be of at least equal quality, safe to use, easy to produce on a large scale, and the business case must be viable for all parties involved. Phasing out PFAS may seem threatening to many companies currently producing products and components with fluorine, but by joining forces with the industry, as a research institution, we are creating new opportunities for the European manufacturing industry to work on alternatives. We are already testing promising solutions with a few innovative frontrunners to develop a fluorine-free membrane.”

TNO is collaborating, among others, with Teijin, with their R&D centre in Arnhem, on developing a first prototype of a fluorine-free membrane for PEM electrolysers, currently being tested in the Electrolyser lab at TNO in Petten. Mark Breed, New Business Development Manager at Teijin, says: “Developing a new generation of proton exchange materials with no fluorine is a prerequisite for us.”

EU regulations

TNO also anticipates expected legislation from Brussels, expected by 2025 at the latest. Research will need to show what effects it will have on the hydrogen chain if there is a complete ban on PFAS, or a delay in developing alternatives. The EU proposal considers postponing the ban for five to twelve years for applications where a full alternative is not yet available. To identify all these effects, TNO is organising workshops with knowledge institutions and businesses.

"In the long term, stringent EU requirements can offer significant opportunities for Dutch industry. If they can bring fluorine-free products to the market, it will give them an edge over the rest of the world. It would be great if this could lead to new economic activity,” says Lennart van der Burg.

  • TNO (Netherlands)

  • Fraunhofer (Germany)

  • RISE Research Institutes of Sweden AB (Sweden)

  • VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland (Finland)

  • CEA (France)

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