There is no single path to decarbonization, and the familiar phrase “energy transition” recognizes that progress is found one step at a time.
To meet increasing demand for greenhouse gas reduction, companies are looking to adopt climate-friendly hydrogen as a flexible, infinitely renewable energy source.
Hydrogen is gaining momentum due to the high degree of flexibility of its origination and uses. Not only can it be derived from traditional hydrocarbon-based sources, like oil, gas, or coal, but it also can be created using renewable wind- and solar-based electricity through a process called electrolysis.
The different ways hydrogen is produced, and the related emissions profile at production, are colloquially labeled by color. For example, “green hydrogen” is derived from purely renewable sources with no emissions, while “grey hydrogen” is derived from carbon-based sources whose emissions are released into the atmosphere. “Blue hydrogen” is also sourced from hydrocarbons—most commonly clean natural gas—but has the advantage of carbon capture, which prevents emissions from reaching the atmosphere.
Despite recent price fluctuations, the natural gas infrastructure provides an accelerator for the hydrogen economy. Abundant supply of natural resource with the opportunity to convert gas molecules into hydrogen closest to where it’s needed.
Renewably sourced hydrogen is ultimately the most desirable from an environmental sustainability standpoint, as carbon never enters the energy supply. But the infrastructure required to build widespread hydrogen adoption from green sources simply is not in place and won’t be for a considerable time. Waiting for this infrastructure will further inhibit the world’s ability to meet net-zero decarbonization goals.
On the other hand, the existing natural gas infrastructure is vast, and provides a quick, safe way to build experience using hydrogen in a wide range of applications.
There are more than 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States alone, and several million more around the world. Despite recent price fluctuations, the natural gas infrastructure provides an accelerator for the hydrogen economy. Abundant supply of natural resource with the opportunity to convert gas molecules into hydrogen closest to where it’s needed. And unlike its grey cousin, blue hydrogen sourced from natural gas includes carbon capture and permanent underground storage processes to prevent release of CO2 into the atmosphere.
This is an important step in the overall growth and adoption of hydrogen because natural gas has emerged as one of the cleanest forms of hydrocarbon energy sources. Natural gas-sourced hydrogen combined with carbon capture provides a massive opportunity to accelerate hydrogen adoption around the world in the near- and mid-term while ultimately transitioning to an increasing percentage of renewable or zero-emission feedstocks over the long term.
Understanding Natural Gas to Hydrogen Production
Today, the majority of hydrogen produced—in both the United States and the world—is made via steam methane reforming, a mature production process in which high-temperature steam is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source, such as natural gas. Without emissions capture technology, the natural gas reforming process releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. To make hydrogen more sustainable, manufacturers need to address the emissions from this production pathway. This is a critical puzzle piece for industries adopting a clean energy transition plan today while developing long-term green solutions for tomorrow.
The steam methane reforming process is split into three phases. First, natural gas reacts with steam, pressure and a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide and a small amount of carbon dioxide. In the next phase, known as “water-gas shift reaction,” the steam and carbon monoxide react with a catalyst to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. In the final phase, pure hydrogen is created through “pressure-swing adsorption,” where the carbon dioxide and other impurities are removed. In the traditional, grey hydrogen-producing process, the waste carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Conversely, with blue hydrogen, most of the carbon dioxide molecules are captured and returned underground for long-term storage.
With more hydrogen in the marketplace, cleaner energy can be adopted in several ways. Blending the natural gas supply with renewable hydrogen reduces overall GHG emissions.
In fact, these technologies to bridge the future of more sustainable hydrogen fuel currently exist. Emerson’s steam methane reformer (SMR) solutions optimize and stabilize reformer operation to help producers improve productivity, reduce variability, decrease energy usage, lower emissions and minimize safety hazards. Such solutions include installing Micro Motion Coriolis meters on the fuel gas or natural gas feed to control the steam-to-carbon ratio. These meters preserve safety, catalyst life and energy costs. As hydrogen is produced at high pressure, Emerson’s final control valves and regulators help maintain a safe, controlled process. To increase overall efficiency and identify leaks in the system, Emerson also uses pressure swing adsorption (PSA) technology. These solutions—coupled with other Emerson technologies, including Digital Twin, control and monitoring systems and Plantweb Optics Platform—can help companies efficiently and safely convert natural gas to blue hydrogen.
With more hydrogen in the marketplace, cleaner energy can be adopted in several ways. Blending the natural gas supply with renewable hydrogen reduces overall GHG emissions, and adopting blue hydrogen also provides an opportunity to leverage valuable energy and infrastructure assets, including fossil fuel reserves and natural gas pipelines.
Leading the H2 Way
One company making moves with renewable hydrogen is Canadian energy provider Enbridge. With help from Emerson technology, the company is the first in North America to use renewable electricity to produce emission-free hydrogen. Enbridge has also blended hydrogen into the natural gas infrastructure, in a pilot program that is delivering cleaner energy to 3,500 homes. This scalable project is one example of how blue hydrogen can help create local, low-carbon economies and a more sustainable energy future.
Another Emerson customer driving the hydrogen economy is BayoTech, based in Albuquerque, N.M. Supplying the end-to-end hydrogen value chain, BayoTech is innovating the way hydrogen is produced, delivered and consumed. Generation ranges from the steam methane reforming of natural gas, landfill gases and agricultural biogas to renewable sources like wind and solar.
Starting in late 2022, BayoTech will partner with Savock Farms in Scotland to divert a portion of the biomethane produced from anaerobic digestion processes onsite supply grid injection to hydrogen production. Using Emerson technology, the BayoTech project can produce 1,000 kilograms or more of renewable hydrogen per day to fuel zero-emission vehicles in the region. This replicable, scalable project gives local consumers access to carbon-negative hydrogen. The project also directly aligns with Scotland’s plans to install at least 5 gigawatts of renewable and low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030.
Creatively finding solutions to integrate cleaner energy solutions is a win for companies, policymakers and consumers. As the world looks to reach Net Zero by 2050, hydrogen can play a critical role in addressing the global need for cleaner energy. The key is removing barriers for adoption so we can “learn by doing,” and gain confidence in hydrogen as a sustainable energy source for the future.