Back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first potential disasters that needed averting was a life-threatening shortage of ventilators and specialised parts for producing them. We are now used to supply chain crises, but back in 2020 this was a fresh problem.

Faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of patients needing emergency ventilation within weeks, the UK government asked TTP, the technology development company I have worked at for over 20 years, to find a way to provide additional ventilators for COVID-19 patients, fast. The short version of the story is that by adopting a novel development approach, TTP was able to design a ventilator ready for volume production by our manufacturing partner, Dyson, within five short weeks.

Charles Cooke, Sustainable Energy Lead - TTP. Photo: TTP

An untold part of this story is how success hinged on designing a system that utilised only parts that were readily available. Even at the concept stage of the design, we decided to only consider routes where we knew there was a secure, sufficient supply of parts for final manufacture of thousands of ventilators. And where necessary, we also used mass-produced parts from other industries. Thankfully, lockdowns and the similarly rapidly developed vaccines meant that we didn’t need to use the ventilators at scale. I am, however, very glad the option was available.

The rapid development of a mass manufacturable ventilator perhaps foreshadows the kind of action we as engineers will need to take to solve the problems we face when tackling the climate crisis. The energy transition and in particular the challenge of scaling the production of green hydrogen is one of them.

According to the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap, the installed base of electrolysers needs to grow to 850 GW by 2030. Even though new announcements are made almost daily, electrolyser manufacturing capacity will almost certainly fall short of what the world needs. Announced plans amount to some 25 to 30 GW electrolyser manufacturing capacity being reached by the middle of the decade, leaving us with just five years in which to manufacture 100s of GW of electrolysers.

What does 850GW of green hydrogen look like?

Membrane-based electrolysers need to grow from a membrane area of 3 football pitches today, to an area of about ~6750 football pitches (~20 times the City of London) in 2030.

At a cell area of 1 metre x 1 metre and depth of 10mm, this translates into 58 million membrane electrode assemblies (MEA) that will need to be assembled into 580km of electrolyser stacks. Clearly, design for mass manufacturing is essential for sustainable energy technologies

Source: TTP

This challenge, too, must be solved by focusing on what can be achieved by mass manufacturing. Electrolyser systems, often designed as one-off technology demonstrators, will need to be completely and innovatively re-engineered for mass production.

Sometimes it will be necessary to invest in the development of new manufacturing technologies, but only when the benefits justify the additional risk and resources required. These decisions need to be informed by design tools, techno-economic analysis, innovative thinking, modelling and analysis to truly understand the complexities of the design space and optimise for performance, cost, and lead time.

We think an underexplored way of achieving this manufacturing scale-up is to leverage existing supply chains that utilise mass manufacturing processes commonly used across other industries, for example to make parts for commodities like cars and washing machines. Like the pandemic, the climate emergency requires us to be inventive and challenge established approaches to find the fastest way of ramping up the availability of life-saving technologies.

Please reach out if you want to talk to us about what we learnt during the pandemic, or our ideas for improving sustainable energy technologies.

Contact us to hear our ideas for improving sustainable energy technologies