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The secret of the former hydrogen production plant

Contribute to the development of new technologies – this was the basic idea behind the construction of a test facility for fuel cells and hydrogen in 1990. Aare-Tessin AG für Elektrizität (Atel), a predecessor of Alpiq, was behind the idea. Beat Galli, today a specialist at the Gösgen hydropower plant, helped project manager Ernst Fischer with the construction and operation of the plant. For the for the hydrogen production, the prototype of a membrane electrolysis system from ABB was used and modified in cooperation with the Paul Scherrer Institute. Atel procured two fuel cell systems from the Canadian company Ballard to produce electricity from hydrogen. It was the first time that hydrogen/air membrane cells were used in Europe and the first time that fuel cells were connected to the grid in Switzerland. The cells made the system very attractive for visitors interested in energy. They received over 150 groups of visitors within three years.

At that time there was very little experience worldwide with solid polymer fuel cells in grid-connected applications. Atel therefore decided to test this type in the pilot facility. The two cells were in operation for around three years from the end of 1991. While the electrolysis of water produces oxygen and hydrogen, the reverse takes place in the fuel cell. When hydrogen and oxygen are combined, they produce electricity, heat and ultrapure water in a controlled process. This electrochemical process is controlled by a specially treated membrane made of a Teflon-like material. The membrane was coated with platinum, fitted with carbon electrodes and clamped between graphite plates in which the hydrogen supply, air supply and cooling channels are embedded. The electricity produced is dissipated via the graphite plates. This configuration creates a cell. A series of several cells create a fuel cell block – known as a ‘stack’.

The project allowed Atel and manufacturers of electrolysers and fuel cells to gain valuable insights, as did various researchers with their experiments. After the project ended, Beat Galli had the task of taking one of the fuel cells to the Primeo Energie electricity museum. However, it was given to the museum without a stack because this component remained confidential. Galli had to keep the stack in a safe place. It was stored in a box in the Gösgen power plant for around 25 years. Nobody knew it was there until the employee magazine ‘View’ uncovered the stack. Beat Galli finally revealed the secret of the object: The fuel cell block is still sealed and has a confidentiality agreement attached to it. However, the component is worthless, because the sensitive cell membranes have long since dried out and are no longer functional.
What remains is the memory of a test facility in which the company made a valuable contribution to research into advanced technology from 1991 to 1994. Alpiq is continuing on this path with the new plant and with the commercial production of hydrogen at the Gösgen hydropower plant.