Producing clean energy from Italian waste water with Finnish fuel cell expertise

Fuel cell systems enable the generation of electricity from biogas that would otherwise remain unused or be burned for heat.

In the European DEMOSOFC project, Convion Ltd and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd will demonstrate fuel cell systems for high-efficiency cogeneration of heat and power from biogas produced in connection with waste water treatment in Italy. Fuel cell systems enable the generation of electricity from biogas that would otherwise remain unused or be burned for heat. The fuel cell plant will be the first of its kind in Europe in terms of size and technology, and the fuel cells at the core of the operation are made by the Finnish company Convion.

Waste water treatment consumes large quantities of heat and power, but at the same time the process produces significant amounts of methane-containing biogas. Treatment plants are thus good application sites for local cogeneration of heat and power, and fuel cells are an excellent technological alternative for the purpose. At best, waste water treatment can become fully energy self-sufficient with the help of fuel cells. The biogas-fed fuel cell system being developed in the DEMOSOFC project will satisfy 30% of the electrical needs of the waste water treatment and 100% of the normal thermal needs of the treatment process.

There are two Finnish parties involved in the project: Convion, which makes fuel cell systems, and VTT. Convion's 175 kW fuel cell plant operates flexibly with natural gas or biogas, fuel flexibility being one of the special strengths of Convion's system. VTT's role in the project is acting as an expert in gas cleaning and the installation and operation of fuel cell plants. Both Convion and VTT are Finnish world-class experts in fuel cell technology.

Convion and VTT will install a fuel cell plant in the Collegno waste water treatment plant of the Italian Società Metropolitana Acque Torino S.p.A. (SMAT) in Turin. There are tens of thousands of waste water treatment plants in Europe and, due to similar treatment processes, the DEMOSOFC concept can be easily replicated. In addition, the modular structure of Convion's fuel cell plant enables scaling of energy production in accordance with the waste water treatment plant's gas production capacity.

The advantages of fuel cell technology over competing technologies become emphasised in small, less than 1-MW plants. Convion's fuel cell power plant operates at a more than 53% electrical efficiency rate, thus producing up to twice as much electric energy as power plants implemented using traditional technologies. When located in urban areas, it is also important that treatment plants have low local emission rates. Convion's fuel cell power plant's operation is noise free, and it does not produce particulate matter, hydrocarbon or nitrous oxide emissions.

The five-year DEMOSOFC project (2015-2020) has an overall budget of EUR 5.9 million and is financed by the European Union with EUR 4.2 million in the framework of the Horizon 2020 programme. The project is coordinated by the Italian Politechnico di Torino, and the multinational European project consortium consists of Convion and VTT from Finland, POLITO and SMAT from Italy, and the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine from the UK.

Definitions: SOFC
Energy production faces challenges posed by the requirements to produce electricity and heat by increasingly efficient and cleaner means. By using solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), energy is made out of fuel and air. The most notable advantage compared with the existing fuel cell technologies is the possibility of using conventional fuels such as natural gas, diesel fuel and biogas, instead of hydrogen. The fuel, and the oxygen present in the air injected into the fuel cell produce a direct electrochemical reaction in the fuel cell, generating electricity and heat.

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