Hydrogen is a Response to Climate Change. Getting Started Is The Hard Part.


SHEFFIELD, UK — Rachel Smith experienced the bumpy journey of green hydrogen from a scientists’ dream to an industry that could be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough. As an engineer, he started working on old appliances to make clean-burning gas in a converted barn two decades ago.

Now he’s part of a team racing to build giant machines that would use electricity to separate hydrogen from water for big companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Danish offshore wind developer Orsted.

“We’ve gone through those toddler years,” said Ms. Smith, executive director at ITM Power, whose vast new plant in Sheffield, an uninhabited center for steelworks and coal mining, is now depleted. “We’re playing in the adult world, not in research labs.”

A consensus is emerging among governments, environmentalists and energy companies that deep cuts in carbon emissions will require large quantities of clean fuels such as hydrogen.

Proponents of hydrogen have identified more than a number of potential applications for reducing carbon emissions of the element. It can be used to power long-haul trucks and train and air travel. energy companies They’re experimenting with mixing hydrogen with natural gas for home heating and cooking.

In total, more than 200 large-scale projects are underway to produce or transport hydrogen, involving investments of more than $80 billion. Daimler and Volvo, the world’s largest truck manufacturers, plan to begin mass-producing long-haul electric trucks running on devices called fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity in a few years. The only emissions of trucks will be water.

“You can imagine an economy powered almost entirely by very clean electricity and very clean hydrogen,” said Ernest Moniz, secretary of energy in the Obama administration and now CEO of the United States. Energy Futures Initiative, a research organization.

But he warned that “many things must happen” for a gas now predominantly used in private areas to become “part of the backbone of the energy system”.

Among the hurdles to overcome: creating enough hydrogen of the right kind at a price acceptable to industries and consumers.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but must be separated from another substance such as water or fossil fuels. For example, industries such as oil refining use large amounts of gray hydrogen, mostly obtained by separating hydrogen from natural gas. And this process produces more greenhouse gas emissions than burning diesel.

In fact, less than 5 percent of the hydrogen produced today is emission-free, and this type costs twice as much as the gray version — between $5 per kilogram and $1 to $2 per kilogram, according to Bernstein, a research firm. . It is also more expensive than conventional fuels such as diesel.

Ms. Smith’s company in Sheffield is one of the more promising sources for hydrogen produced without producing emissions. It makes devices known as electrolyzers that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is emission-free, provided the electricity comes from sources like wind and sun.

Electrolysers have been around for nearly a century, but analysts say ITM’s technology, known as a polymer electrolyte membrane, has the advantage of being quick on and off. ripples with the sun and the breeze.

ITM says the value of its contracts has tripled last year to £154m, or about $213m. Analysts at British bank Barclays estimate that a $65 billion market for such equipment could materialize in the next decade.

The prospect of buying a weapon against climate change is flocking investors to ITM and similar companies like NEL in Norway and McPhy Energy in France. Even though ITM is losing money, its stock market value is around £2.3 billion. The share price has quadrupled since the beginning of 2020.

Today, ITM has 310 employees. One of its early investors, Peter Hargreaves, said he had to bail out the company four times using his own money when he was still a start-up.

“There was no guarantee that the company would succeed, that people would embrace the hydrogen economy,” said Mr. Hargreaves, founder of Hargreaves Lansdown, a brokerage firm. He added that so far it has been “well rewarded”.

Until recently, ITM has focused on building small appliances for facilities such as gas stations, some of which are operated by Shell and serve relatively few hydrogen-powered vehicles. It is now pursuing much larger projects that can produce enough hydrogen to fuel fleets of trucks or buses. It collaborated with the German industrial gas supplier Linde, which has a 17 percent stake in ITM. This year it moved to the Sheffield plant, the size of two football fields, said to be the largest electrolyzer plant in the world, to produce plants on an industrial scale.

The guts of these gas power plants are units with tightly packed cells, like cafeteria trays, where the separation of hydrogen from water takes place. Many modules can be connected together to make very large plants that can in turn produce copious amounts of clean hydrogen.

Recently, Shell started operating one of ITM’s larger electrolyzers at a refinery in Germany. Electricity will come from wind farms and will be used to extract sulfur from hydrogen fuels. Later, an expanded facility could produce hydrogen for an aviation fuel that burns with lower emissions.

ITM is also working on a plant that aims to supply up to 45 tonnes of hydrogen per day to an industrial area in the Humber region of northeastern England. Power would come from an offshore wind farm.

Larger machines combined with cheaper renewable energy should improve the hydrogen economy. Researchers at consulting firm McKinsey expect green hydrogen to be cheap enough to compete with other energy sources by 2030.

But for now, clean hydrogen projects require government subsidies and customers still need to be willing to pay more for the energy they produce.

For hydrogen to become a major energy source, it will require other major changes, such as regulations promoting the use of green hydrogen in industry and heating. It will also need better infrastructure and consumers willing to adopt new habits.

To give an example, hydrogen has been slow to catch on as a fuel for automobiles, despite advantages over contemporary electric batteries such as longer ranges and the ability to refuel in a matter of minutes.

Shell has already built a network of hydrogen fueling stations in Europe, but German car companies battery powered vehicles. There are only 1,200 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in Germany, and Shell acknowledges that hydrogen attracts very few customers. At a Shell gas station in Frankfurt, the hydrogen pump was in the back where customers cleaned the inside of their cars. A digital signage designed to show the price of hydrogen was placed near the station’s entrance, but it was dark.

Stephanie Searle, director of the fuel program at the Clean Transport Council International in Washington, said industry forecasts are “overly optimistic about how easy this will be”. “It will take a lot of commitment to get there.”


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