Hydrogen: The Key To Accelerated Decarbonisation

Hydrogen Sector 23.05.23
Written by: HYCAP

For anyone still wondering ‘why hydrogen?’ here’s a recap:

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that approximately 4.2 million deaths occur annually due to inadequate ambient air quality, and a staggering 91% of the global population resides in areas that surpass the WHO’s air quality standards. The major contributors to this pollution are emissions from internal combustion engines (ICE) and fossil fuel power plants.

It’s worth focusing on the fact that it is the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production that results in the emission of greenhouse gases and harmful particulate matter. To address this issue, more than 20 countries have committed to prohibiting the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Additionally, over 25 cities have made commitments to exclusively purchase zero-emission buses starting from 2025. These actions are motivated by the Net Zero agendas, as well as the pressing need to minimise toxic diesel emissions in urban areas.

Decision-makers and various industries recognise clean hydrogen as a pivotal technology to achieve Net Zero goals and enhance air quality.

In alignment with the Paris Agreement, a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C, over 30 countries have established hydrogen policies and allocated a substantial funding of $70 billion. These initiatives are integral to the Energy Transition, facilitating the shift towards a low-carbon economy.

Ensuring access to clean hydrogen has become a primary focus for refiners, steel manufacturers, and ammonia producers as they tackle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Heavy industries like steel production and oil refining face significant pressure to minimise or eliminate the use of grey hydrogen in their processes, in order to mitigate the associated GHG emissions. Presently, a substantial portion of the demand for clean hydrogen arises from the need to transition away from grey hydrogen, essentially emphasising the importance of cleaning up existing hydrogen sources.

The combustion of fossil fuels results in the emission of greenhouse gases and harmful particulate matter, and clean hydrogen holds the potential to replace fossil fuels in challenging-to-decarbonise industries.

Clean hydrogen holds the potential to replace fossil fuels in challenging-to-decarbonise industries. It can be utilised in power plants as a substitute for natural gas, coal, and oil, or alternatively converted into electricity via hydrogen fuel cells. Crucially, the use of hydrogen as a fuel results in water vapor as the sole by-product, making it the environmentally-friendly choice.

Hydrogen serves as a valuable means to store and transport intermittent renewable energy on a grid scale. As wind and solar power sources progressively contribute a significant portion of the electricity supply, there will be a growing requirement for large-scale energy storage solutions to compensate for periods of low wind and sunlight. By converting electricity into hydrogen, this energy can be stored for extended durations in pipelines, tanks, or even underground salt caverns. This enables efficient long-term storage and retrieval of renewable energy resources.

By 2040, the hydrogen sector is projected to have a market potential of $1 trillion. To accomplish the Net Zero objectives, a remarkable 200-fold increase in clean hydrogen supply is expected between 2019 and 2030. This surge is driven by the expansion of renewable energy sources and the gradual elimination of fossil fuels, which enhance the economic viability of established hydrogen technologies. As a result, clean hydrogen has the potential to account for 20% of the energy mix by 2050.

When it comes to the origins of hydrogen, there are various terms used, often referred to as colour codes. We typically recognise four primary types:

Green hydrogen does not rely on hydrocarbons. It is produced by utilising renewable electricity, such as wind and solar power, to operate electrolysers that generate hydrogen and oxygen.

Countries are racing to honour their commitment to the Paris Agreement, a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C. Pictured: extreme wild fires in California caused by the climate crisis.

Grey hydrogen represents the current prevalent method of production. It involves heating methane gas with steam through a process called steam methane reforming (SMR). While efficient, this process releases CO2. Grey hydrogen has been widely used for decades and is a significant industry today.

Blue hydrogen also employs SMR like grey hydrogen but includes the capture and storage of CO2 emissions, mitigating its environmental impact.

Turquoise hydrogen is generated through the pyrolysis treatment of conventional natural gas, involving chemical decomposition at high temperatures. This process produces hydrogen as well as solid carbon as a by-product.

By the end of 2021, there were over 500 hydrogen projects announced worldwide, showcasing an increase of over 100% compared to the previous year. It is estimated that the expenditure across the entire value chain of clean hydrogen could reach $700 billion by 2030.

Clean hydrogen production occurs at industrial facilities equipped with either low-cost green electricity, or access to natural gas and geological sites for CO2 storage.

Once produced, hydrogen is transported or stored using pipelines and tanks, ensuring its availability for customers. Industries like oil refining utilise hydrogen for various processes, including the desulphurisation of crude oil.

Alternatively, hydrogen can be converted into electricity or heat through the use of fuel cells. This conversion process takes place in various settings, such as trucks, trains, and buses equipped with hydrogen tanks, as well as in large buildings like hotels and offices where combined heat and power (CHP) units are employed.

Concept of an energy storage system based on electrolysis of hydrogen. Once produced, hydrogen is transported or stored using pipelines and tanks, ensuring its availability for customers.

Hydrogen possesses a comparable energy mass (energy per kilogram) to traditional liquid fuels like gasoline. However, hydrogen has a lower volumetric energy density, necessitating compression and storage in pressurised tanks for transportation and storage purposes. To address this, some stakeholders are considering the shipment of large quantities of liquid hydrogen from supply sources to customers. Another alternative is converting hydrogen into liquid ammonia for transportation.

Liquid hydrogen storage requires specialized cryogenic tanks that are maintained at a temperature as low as -253°C. On the other hand, ammonia offers certain advantages: it has a high hydrogen content, with 17.65 wt percent, an established distribution network, and can be liquefied at a pressure of 10 bar or a temperature of -33°C.

After hydrogen is produced, it needs to be efficiently transported and stored. The existing manufacturing industry is adapting to meet the specific requirements of hydrogen gas, supplying compression systems, pipelines, and storage cylinders and tanks.

Hydrogen Refueling Stations (HRS) will in the near future transition from specialised depots for trucks, buses, and trains to mainstream petrol station forecourts.

Additionally, hydrogen gas can be utilised to decarbonize portable power, replacing diesel and petrol generators with hydrogen-powered units.

One of the most appealing aspects of hydrogen gas is its compatibility with existing infrastructure. Relatively simple modifications can be made to enable the introduction of this zero-carbon fuel into various systems, leveraging the existing infrastructure for a smooth transition.

Clean hydrogen, although currently relatively higher in cost compared to fossil fuels, has the potential to become more competitive over time. As advancements in technology, economies of scale, and supportive policies come into play, the cost of producing clean hydrogen is decreasing.

The arguments that revolve around the cost and time involved in establishing hydrogen infrastructure compared to producing lower-carbon alternatives like oil and gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) are now considered outdated and are swiftly losing their relevance.

A notable example is the transformation happening within major oil companies, including long-time fossil fuel proponents like ExxonMobil, who are now actively pursuing hydrogen and carbon capture strategies. For ExxonMobil, hydrogen is viewed as a potential $1 trillion market in the medium term. Similarly, BP envisions hydrogen accounting for up to 15% of the long-term energy mix.

The focus of the debate has shifted towards discussions surrounding the required timescales for implementation rather than the feasibility or cost-effectiveness of hydrogen as a viable energy solution.

Pictured: The planned innovative multi-million pound green hydrogen production facility at the Ballymena headquarters of globally renowned sustainable bus manufacturer Wrightbus, U.K.

There are certain misconceptions and mythical theories surrounding hydrogen, such as concerns that it will corrode pipes, lead to leaks, or be unsuitable for combustion in power plants and domestic boilers.

The notion that hydrogen cannot be effectively integrated into existing infrastructure is also outdated. In the initial stages of hydrogen adoption, a blending approach is being pursued, where hydrogen is mixed with natural gas in existing networks. A notable example is the HyDeploy project in the UK, which successfully trialled a 20% hydrogen blend with natural gas in domestic boilers in 2021. Additionally, pure hydrogen boilers are already available in the market, providing a direct and efficient way to utilize hydrogen for heating purposes.

The potential to produce clean hydrogen without any greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions holds significant appeal for industries currently reliant on grey hydrogen. These industries are facing substantial pressure to transition towards cleaner practices and contribute to the Net Zero goals.

Clean hydrogen’s appeal is that it has the capacity to replace fossil fuels in numerous sectors, including heat, power, and transportation, making it an attractive prospect for achieving decarbonisation objectives.

Similar to other clean energy sources, investment and innovation in clean hydrogen have been influenced by fluctuations in oil prices and government policies. It is worth noting that despite substantial investments and widespread deployment of modern renewables like wind and solar since the mid-1970s, they still represent only around 3% of the global energy mix.

In a similar vein, clean hydrogen has been developing over a comparable timeframe, with the challenge of competing against low-cost and abundant fossil fuels. However, the increasing focus on sustainability and the urgency to mitigate climate change are driving greater attention and investments toward the development and utilisation of clean hydrogen as a key solution for a more sustainable energy future.

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