Interest in clean, or “green”, hydrogen has surged over the past few years, as governments and companies have started to assess whether the light, colourless gas could become the Swiss army knife of solutions to combat climate change.
Green hydrogen is produced through the electrolysis of water. In an electrolyser, electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is produced by renewable power, such as solar or wind, the resulting carbon-free hydrogen is called green hydrogen, as the only ‘waste’ product is oxygen.
Various applications utilizing green hydrogen could therefore be used to help decarbonize transport, heavy manufacturing industries, and heating, as well as provide energy storage that would enable summer solar power to be used in the middle of winter. In short, this wee molecule could help solve some of the world’s most intractable and carbon-heavy energy problems.
Lauri Vartia is Linde’s Senior Manager for Clean Hydrogen in Northern Europe. He has more than two decades of experience working with industrial gases at Linde and is passionate about hydrogen’s potential. In his current role, he focuses on charting a path for clean hydrogen in the region.
“I'm extremely interested in figuring out how we can make the world more sustainable and with hydrogen, I see huge potential to do that, he says.
Vartia is particularly optimistic when it comes to green hydrogen.
“It really has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions in a number of industrial processes,” he explains. “I see it as a key enabler for reaching ambition decarbonization targets and for cutting emissions, and that’s a great motivator for me and for Linde.”
Professor Göran Lindbergh is head of department of applied electrochemistry at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and has long been preeminent in the field of the electrification of the transport sector, and he agrees that hydrogen could be a climate gamechanger.
“We really need to move away from fossil fuels because of the whole climate warming issue and hydrogen is one way to do that,” he says.
While Lindbergh is convinced hydrogen has a major role in global efforts to decarbonize different sectors of the economy, he admits cheaper and more abundant renewable electricity is needed to accelerate the process.
“In Scandinavia, the renewables are mainly wind and water, but in the south of Europe there’s also a lot of photovoltaic solar energy being produced,” he explains. “Suddenly the cost of hydrogen based on the use of renewable electricity has become much less expensive. So, these developments have really opened up a lot of new possibilities for hydrogen.”
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Lindbergh points to several large Swedish industrial projects that made big strides in the use of hydrogen over the last year.
One of these projects was undertaken recently by Linde and Swedish steelmaker, Ovako. Carried out at Ovako’s plant in central Sweden, the test involved heating steel hydrogen instead of propane before rolling.
Göran Nyström, EVP of Group Marketing & Technology with Ovako, was excited by the results of the test project.
“The analysis of the steel we produced showed that heating with hydrogen did not adversely affect the quality,” he explains. “Given the right conditions, it was clear we could use hydrogen heating for furnaces at all our rolling mills, thereby drastically reducing our carbon footprint from cradle to gate.”
Ovako isn’t the only Nordic company to be in the vanguard of the hydrogen revolution. Norwegian ferry company Norled AS has also been taking steps to incorporate hydrogen into its business.
Norled’s Project Manager Ivan Østvik is a naval architect by profession who, since 2015, has been developing “green” ship projects in Norway, focusing on implementing sustainable and reliable zero-emission energy technologies. He is an internationally recognized expert in maritime zero-emission solutions and has been instrumental in constructing the world’s first liquid hydrogen-powered ship.
“We wanted to use liquid hydrogen because of its scalability, low-pressure storage, and the fact it can be a zero-emissions fuel,” Østvik says of the work on a new hydrogen-fuelled ferry due to be operational in the Norwegian fjords in the summer of 2021.
Østvik has no doubt that hydrogen will play a key role in long-term global efforts to decarbonize.
“I’d say hydrogen-powered vessels have a good chance of eliminating diesel-driven ferries and LNG-driven ferries before 2030,” he says. “And the wider transportation industry will also see huge changes on the back of this. Obviously, we need zero-emission hydrogen production to be scaled up massively. But renewables are getting cheaper all the time. Hydrogen will be a low-cost energy source and a zero-emission fuel that will benefit society as a whole.”
German engineering group Siemens also recently undertook a hydrogen project which looked at what happened when the gas was run through burners that power the company’s industrial gas turbines.
“We have an incremental approach to introducing hydrogen into the fuel mix for our burners,” explains Professor Jenny Larfeldt, A Principal Key Expert at Siemens.
After starting at mixes with 15 and 30 percent hydrogen, Larfeldt and her colleagues eventually reached a mix with up to 75 percent hydrogen.
“Seventy five percent actually accounts for half of the energy content of the fuel, which translates into a reduction of the carbon footprint by 50 percent,” she says. “It was a pretty big step.”
Overcoming remaining hurdles
Despite the understandable excitement generated by such successes, there remain sizeable obstacles to the global uptake of hydrogen.
Professor Lindbergh from KTH believes cost is the most obvious barrier standing in the way of hydrogen’s long-term success.
“It’s all about cost,” he says
Even if it's possible to produce zero-carbon green hydrogen using renewable energy sources, the process of doing so isn't cheap.
“Currently, electrolysis is quite expensive. We need many more large-scale electrolysers, and these will be expensive in the short-term,” says Lindbergh.
"The cost of producing hydrogen will fall"
But he remains confident that the cost of producing hydrogen will fall as hydrogen production plants are built in with dedicated renewable energy generation capabilities.
“Having the hydrogen production very close to a significant supply of renewable energy will cut costs and enhance the possibilities for zero-carbon hydrogen,” he explains.
The sheer newness of green hydrogen is also a problem, according to Østvik of Norled.
“Fuel cell technology using hydrogen or the liquid hydrogen storage system have never been used on a ship at this scale before,” he says.
As a result, there are no regulatory framework to use as a reference for how such systems should operate. This means Østvik and his team at Norled need to spend more time carrying out a wide range of preliminary analyses.
“We need to prove that using the fuel cells running on hydrogen will be just as safe as a diesel driven ferry,” he says.
But Larfeldt from Siemens is certain hydrogen will play a major role in decarbonizing large sectors of the economy.
“This little molecule is important in so many aspects,” she explains. “We can use it for energy but it's just as important for the chemical industry. You could build everything on hydrogen, and I guess that's a very beautiful, appealing idea - the hydrogen society.”
Linde’s Vartia shares Larfeldt’s optimism about the future of hydrogen.
“We will continue to see an increasing interest from companies and governments toward zero emissions production, and continued announcements of ambitious decarbonization goals, which will be a driving force for developments,” he says. “The potential with hydrogen is so huge that even if we only realize a part of it, we will still make a big difference.”