The First in the Universe
The world energy industry has reached a fundamentally new level of socio-economic development recently, when the key question has switched from “What do we use for fuel?” to “How do we fuel?”. The industry offers many different energy options from coal to tidal energy. At the same time, humanity makes its choice, turning away from the cheapest and most affordable sources that used to be the trend thirty years ago, to the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient energy sources. The key global players such as the European Union, Japan, USA, China and Russia are now busy establishing conditions for investment in the development of new energy technologies. One of the most promising options may be the widespread use of hydrogen as fuel and energy storage.
The First Element
Hydrogen, the first element of the periodic table, seems to have been specifically created to become the ideal fuel. It is the most common element in the entire universe. Its calorific value reaches 120 MJ/kg. It should be noted that methane (the energy resource with the second-best calorific value) yields only 56 MJ/kg. When hydrogen is used, pure water is formed without harmful emissions into the atmosphere, which is fully consistent with the global environmental agenda. This gas has long been used in the oil refining and chemical industries, so humanity has already gained experience working with it. According to the IEA, in total about 69 million tons of hydrogen per year are produced in the world, and 48 million tons are produced annually as a by-product. Of these, 63% is used in the chemical industry, 31% in oil refining, 6% in processing, and less than 1% as fuel for cars, trucks and missiles. It was the space industry that had first evaluated hydrogen’s potential as a fuel. In the 80’s, liquid hydrogen was actively used as rocket fuel for Space Shuttle and Buran shuttles. Moreover, the USSR even designed the first aircraft based on the TU-154 with a hydrogen-fueled engine.
However, only during the recent decade, when the industrialized countries have started active implementation of environmental programs to reduce CO2 emissions, and after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, hydrogen began to be considered as a real alternative to hydrocarbon fuel. More and more countries are coming to the conclusion that energy has to be gradually switched over to methane-hydrogen base.
As the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, chairman of the Global Energy Prize International Committee, Rae Kwon Chung, noted, “Hydrogen is the best solution to decarbonization of the global economy and to achievement of the zero emissions goal by 2050”.
“Many countries, including the USA, Germany, Japan and even Korea, are actively engaged in the hydrogen economy and already produce hydrogen-fueled cars. The transition from methane-hydrogen fuel to hydrogen will be the practical approach that can stimulate the deployment of hydrogen infrastructure. Innovations aimed at mass production of hydrogen at a competitive price will be crucial for the transition to a hydrogen economy. Testing and optimization of various technologies, including methane pyrolysis and plasma-chemical methods for producing hydrogen from natural gas, will be an important step in moving towards deep decarbonisation to achieve the goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement”, Rae Kwon Chung told the Global Energy Association.
The Hydrogen World
Japan, the country which is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon imports, is most actively introducing hydrogen technologies. In 2014, they adopted a roadmap for building a “hydrogen-based society”. According to the program, the use of hydrogen should increase from 200 tons in 2018 to 10 million tons in 2050. Even today, Japan already has about 2.5 thousand cars with a hydrogen engine. At the same time, Japan is planning to purchase more hydrogen from Australia. However, this gas will be obtained through oil refining.
In summer 2019, China released the “White Book” on Chinese hydrogen energy and fuel cells, according to which, by 2050, hydrogen will make up 10% of the country’s energy consumption, or 60 million tons per year. By 2030, the PRC will possess as many as 2 million vehicles with hydrogen-fuel cells.
Shanghai is planning to build a world-class “Hydrogen Energy Harbour” in Jiading area to create a reliable production chain for hydrogen transport. On the basis of the hydrogen energy harbor, an industrial cluster of 2.15 square meters will be formed, yielding revenue of $7.23 billion per year.
In Europe, the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking Technology Initiative was launched in 2017. The Initiative calls for the active use of hydrogen as part of the “energy transition”, and for investment in hydrogen projects totaling 1.8 billion Euros over the next five years. Two Dutch provinces, Groningen and Drenthe, are planning to jointly institute the “Hydrogen Valley” in their territories, a project based on the uptake of hydrogen from water using renewable energy sources. It includes 33 specific projects, among which are the construction of an underground hydrogen storage facility in the salt caves in Süwendwing, the establishment of a network of hydrogen gas stations, the addition of hydrogen and synthesis gas to existing gas pipelines. Shell, Nuon, Engie, BioMCN (biomethanol manufacturer), Gasunie and other companies are going to participate in the project.
The UK is starting a pilot project where hydrogen will be added to piped gas used for heating. At first, this experiment will embrace 130 houses. If successful, it will be expanded.
At the other end of the world, in Chile, Enel Green Power launched the world’s first 100 percent pure commercial hydrogen-based micro-grid in 2017. The network is fueled by a set of hybrid storage devices consisting of a solar power station, as well as a system of hydrogen and lithium batteries.
Gray, Blue, Green
Despite the vast geography and diversity of these projects, all of them run up against the need for industrial production of hydrogen, since this gas does not occur in its pure form in nature. Most of these projects are energy-consuming and not all of them allow avoiding the “carbon footprint”, which again ends up with large amounts of emissions into the atmosphere.
As of today, the most popular method is the production of hydrogen via steam methane reforming. Methane can be either isolated from natural gas or synthesized from coal. This process yields the cheapest hydrogen. One kilogram of gas so produced will cost 1 to 2 dollars. However, it leads to emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. CO2 emission from steam methane reforming reaches 10 kg per kilogram of hydrogen. Therefore, this method of producing hydrogen is often referred to as “gray” in the literature.
Recently, manufacturers have been trying to improve this technology through the construction of carbon dioxide capture and storage facilities, which turns “gray” projects into “blue”. However, this leads to an increase in capital expenditures up to 80% and boosts the cost of the resulting hydrogen about one and a half times. Currently, three projects are being implemented in the world with the integration of carbon dioxide capture systems into hydrogen production projects: Port Arthur in the USA, Quest in Canada and Tomakomai in Japan. In addition, the Japanese company Kawasaki prepared a project in Australia aimed at the production of hydrogen from synthetic gas, which in turn is obtained in the process of gasification of brown coal. Hydrogen will be delivered to Japan by special-purpose tankers. The resulting CO2 will be captured and pumped into the reservoir. The project is profitable because of the low price of Australian coal and the simplicity of its extraction.
There is another way to produce hydrogen by electrolysis of water. This technology yields hydrogen with a minimum carbon footprint, but it is also energy-intense. This method of hydrogen production is often combined with renewable energy projects; such hydrogen is called “green”. According to the IEA, over the past 10 years, about 10 MW of electrolytic cells was put into operation annually in the world on average. In 2018, 20 MW was commissioned, and by the end of 2020, another 100 MW is expected to be commissioned. However, this method has several significant drawbacks. First, the hydrogen so released is very expensive. It is more than three times more expensive than hydrogen produced by methane conversion. In addition, the method of hydrogen electrolysis requires large expenditures of water. Thus, the expansion of this technology, according to the IEA, may require up to 617 million cubic meters of clean water per year. By no means all regions of the world can afford such volumes.
In addition, there is the option of using hydrogen in a mixture with methane. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8-15% compared with the use of pure methane. A similar approach is already being applied in a number of European countries.
“Adding hydrogen into methane increases the rate and temperature of combustion of the methane-hydrogen mixture. This leads to increased efficiency of power plants and internal combustion engines. As a result, both the emission of carcinogens into the atmosphere and the emission of greenhouse gases (CO2) are reduced”, Nikolai Baranov, chief researcher at the Joint Institute for High Temperatures of the Global Energy Institute explained to the Global Energy Association.
The studies performed by European equipment manufacturers have shown that several types of modern industrial gas turbines are already capable of burning a fuel mixture containing up to 50-60% hydrogen. However, Europe has no uniform standards yet regulating the maximum levels of hydrogen in gas transmission systems. This makes the massive application of this method difficult.
Therefore, the entire scientific world continues to search for ways to reduce the cost of hydrogen production along with the possibilities for the widespread use of such technologies.
Russian Footprint vs. Carbon Footprint
Gazprom, the Russian gas concern, has offered the world its vision of developing hydrogen production, which has a number of significant advantages. It is based on the use of pyrolysis and plasma-chemical methods, which allows for decomposition of methane into hydrogen and solid carbon. The latter is a valuable material for the industrial and construction sectors, electrical engineering and electronics. Unlike gaseous carbon dioxide, solid carbon is non-toxic and easy to store. Emission of solid carbon in the process of hydrogen production will not only reduce harmful emissions, but also generate extra income.
Methane pyrolysis and plasma-chemical methods for producing hydrogen from natural gas do not lead to direct CO2 emissions. These methods involve the use of methane, but given that the carbon footprint of the Russian gas supplies is minimal, the proposed hydrogen production method can safely be called “green”. Moreover, it is expected to have lower energy costs compared to electrolysis of water.
According to the head of the Center for Hydrogen Energy Technologies of the Lithuanian Energy Institute, Darius Milcius, the production of hydrogen by pyrolysis has another significant advantage: the price of the gas so produced is comparable to the price of hydrogen produced by steam conversion.
“The production of hydrogen without CO2 emissions from methane could be a valuable solution to achieve the EU climate goals for 2030 and 2050 at lower costs, since the cost of hydrogen production using pyrolysis technologies can be similar to the price of hydrogen obtained as a result of steam reforming in combination with sequestration of CO2. It can also be almost 3 times more profitable in comparison with water electrolysis technologies”, he told the Global Energy.
Milcius also added: “In addition, as a by-product of the reaction, it would be possible to produce high-quality and expensive carbon black for use in various fields (rubber industry, plastics manufacture, housing, etc.). This will obviously offer new opportunities in the market. Finally, the production of hydrogen from methane without CO2 emissions will help maintain jobs in the oil and gas industry, while creating new jobs related to the production of hydrogen in place as needed”.
“Massive introduction of this technology will make it possible to produce large quantities of “green” hydrogen. This in turn will reduce the cost of hydrogen per liter or kilogram and make it competitive compared to the hydrogen obtained through methane steam reforming. Hydrogen can be further mixed with natural gas, forming the so-called Hythane. This gas mixture has better energy characteristics compared to pure natural gas”, Etienne Bouyer, Adjunct Director of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, told the Global Energy Association.
“If such processes promoted by Gazprom allow achieving high purity, then it will be able to open new markets. An example in the field of mobility is the deployment of a large system of hydrogen fuel cells capable of driving trains in un-electrified areas (instead of using diesel locomotives). The same is true for cargo ships that use low-quality fuel for their heat engines today as well”, Bouyer added.
However, experts say, like any new method, hydrogen production via pyrolysis technology requires some technical improvements. According to Milcius, additional research will be required in order to find a new highly efficient catalyst for single-stage methane decomposition reactions.
Boyer notes that this method requires optimization of energy costs and exploration of the possibilities of involving nuclear power plants or renewable energy sources in its implementation. “Pyrolysis or plasma-chemical process is energy-intensive, since they occur at high or very high temperatures (i.e., plasma). In addition, plasma chemistry technology has a fairly low conversion coefficient. Thus, an important and key condition is the availability of a low-carbon energy source for pyrolysis and plasma technology, such as atomic energy or renewable energy sources”, he said.
These tasks can be solved through the implementation of complex hydrogen projects, from the developed gas pipeline system and the construction of power plants to the expansion of the use of hydrogen in the global economy.
Nigel Brandon, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College of London, noted that “hydrogen fuel can play an important role in the transition to a zero-carbon system along with low-carbon electricity, especially in high-emission sectors such as industry, chemical industry, and long-distance logistics”. So the massive-scale introduction of hydrogen technologies is unlikely to be slow in coming.