Hydrogen is traded as a beacon of hope for environmentally friendly transport. In many energy-hungry industrial sectors, volatile gas is even seen as the ideal route to greater climate friendliness without any alternative. Steel manufacturers, chemical companies and refineries want to use hydrogen from green electricity to produce greener in the future.
Whether David against Goliath or Tesla against the auto giants of the world: Sometimes the greatest expectations lie on the little ones. This has definitely been the case with hydrogen in recent years. “Hydrogen is tomorrow’s oil,” says Anja Karliczek convinced.
For the Federal Minister of Research, the smallest element in the universe is a multifunctional raw material for transport, heating and industry. At least when the hydrogen is produced “green” – that is, when the energy required to split the water consists of green electricity. If the battery-electric drive in the car is considered to be the more energy-efficient and cost-effective variant for experts, the volatile gas could be used wherever the large and heavy batteries reach their limits – i.e. in heavy-duty traffic on land, at sea and in the air. But especially in industry, which after energy generation and before traffic, carries the largest CO2 backpack in Germany with around 20 percent. The first element of the periodic table is becoming increasingly important here.
Green instead of gray
20 billion normal cubic meters of hydrogen are produced annually in Germany alone, worldwide there are 500 billion. Most of it is obtained from natural gas by means of steam reforming. A lot of CO2 is released during the production of the “gray” hydrogen – with the known consequences for the global climate. The oil companies are among the largest industrial users today. Every refinery uses several tons of hydrogen an hour to desulfurize kerosene, diesel and gasoline. In a pilot project in 2018, BP already demonstrated that gray hydrogen from natural gas can be replaced with green hydrogen from green electricity without any technical problems demonstrated. In the refinery in Lingen, 130,000 cubic meters of the climate-neutral hydrogen were used for over a month. A real first, but it only covered a few percent of the total amount required.
Even if all of the hydrogen in the refineries were to come from electrolysers one day, gasoline and diesel would of course not be environmentally friendly at one stroke. However, their production would at least have a little less impact on the climate. After all, the production of one ton of gray hydrogen produces ten tons of CO2. BP now wants to install its first electrolysis system in Lingen . The electricity for this is provided by the Danish company Ørsted’s offshore wind farms in the North Sea. The plant is scheduled to go into operation in 2024 and initially generate 50 megawatts (MW) of power. Enough to replace 20 percent of conventional hydrogen, according to BP. In a second phase, the electrolysers in Lingen are to be expanded to 150 MW.
Competitor Shell is already one step further: in 2020 the group put an electrolyser into operation in its Rhineland refinery in Wesseling near Cologne. With an output of ten megawatts, it is currently the largest in the world, according to the company. However, at 1,300 tons per year, it produces less than one percent of the hydrogen that the refinery in Wesseling needs. In the next phase of the project, a 100 MW system is to be developed, which could then cover around ten percent of the demand.
Base molecule of the chemical industry
There is also growing interest in green hydrogen in the chemical industry, which in a first step could also replace the gray hydrogen from natural gas. The H&R Ölwerke Schindler in Hamburg, for example, use hydrogen from their own electrolyser to desulphurize their special oils for the tire, cosmetics and food industries.
However, hydrogen is needed above all in enormous quantities for the production of basic chemicals. For example, from methanol, the starting material for formaldehyde, which is used, for example, in the manufacture of dyes and medicines. But especially of ammonia, one of the most widely produced chemicals, which is mainly used in the fertilizer industry. Power-to-X is the name of the principle in which electricity is converted into hydrogen and this is then converted into a synthesis gas or synthetic crude oil. From fuels to plastics and cosmetics, it can basically be used to produce everything that is extracted from the earth today.
Hydrogen instead of coal coke
In the energy-intensive steel industry, green hydrogen is even treated as a key element in order to be able to achieve the climate targets. The industry is responsible for seven percent of CO2 emissions worldwide. The main reason for this is coal coke, which is burned in large quantities in the steel reduction process. For every ton of steel, almost two tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. The coke can be replaced with hydrogen, which ThyssenKrupp successfully tested in Essen. The pioneer in this area is Salzgitter AG, which launched a pilot project in 2016. In summer 2020, the company put an electrolyser with 720 kilowatts into operation in its Salzgitter iron and steel works. The steel heavyweight wants to build its first iron ore direct reduction plant by 2022,
The idea behind the project, which is funded by the federal government with five million euros: As long as green hydrogen is not yet available in sufficient quantities, the plant can be operated predominantly with natural gas, which means that CO2 emissions could already be more than halved compared to today. If the natural gas is then completely replaced by green hydrogen, step by step, carbon dioxide emissions are to be reduced by 95 percent. Salzgitter AG intends to use hydrogen for all of its steel production by 2050.
This of course has its price. The German Steel Federation has calculated that it will cost 30 billion euros to convert all steelworks in Germany in an environmentally friendly way over the next 40 years. With hydrogen, the costs of steel production will also increase. According to a study by Agora Energiewende, one ton of green steel would probably be two thirds to twice as expensive as today’s conventional steel . From the point of view of the experts, this cost disadvantage could be offset by a quota for green steel and other low-carbon products as well as a CO2 price on products.
Strategy for more H2
Green hydrogen is still only available in small quantities and at high prices. The federal government wants to change that with its “National Hydrogen Strategy” adopted in June 2020. A total of nine billion euros are to flow into the promotion of hydrogen technologies – seven billion of which will be used to build a hydrogen infrastructure in Germany, the remaining two billion in international partnerships relating to the talented molecule. The hydrogen strategy paves the way for “Germany to become number one in the world when it comes to hydrogen technologies,” said Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier . In order to promote the development of a strong domestic market, electrolysis plants with a total output of up to five gigawatts are to be built in Germany by 2030. Since the beginning of 2021, electrolysis systems have also been exempt from the EEG surcharge, which has so far made the production of the green hope gas uneconomical.
But even if the quantities increase in the future with growing production and thus prices decrease: Green hydrogen will still be more expensive than its fossil predecessor and its production will always require a lot of electricity. According to Agora Energiewende, an additional 74 terawatt hours would be required to decarbonise the local steel industry – a third of the green electricity that was generated from wind, sun, water and biomass in Germany in 2019. The chemical industry For her part, anticipates additional investments of around 45 billion euros and an almost explosive increase in their own power hunger for complete climate neutrality by 2050. According to the calculations, the energy demand of the industry is likely to increase from 54 terawatt hours to 628 terawatt hours by 2050 – more than the electricity produced in Germany in 2020 .
Hydrogen from the desert
Even if the currently faltering expansion of renewables should pick up speed again considerably in the coming years: the local hydrogen demand cannot be satisfied with green electricity from German production alone. As part of its hydrogen strategy, the federal government therefore wants to build partnerships with countries such as Chile, Australia and Morocco. The hydrogen is to be produced in larger quantities at lower costs in these windy and sunny countries and imported from there to Germany. German and Australian researchers are to use a feasibility study to find out what a hydrogen partnership including transport infrastructure between the two industrialized countries could look like.
The first project on the promising molecule has already started in Morocco. At the end of 2020, the German development ministry promised the government of the North African state a loan of 90 million euros, with which the first large-scale plant for the production of hydrogen is to be built in Africa. In the first expansion stage, the electrolysers should have a capacity of 100 megawatts to have. The tender for the pilot plant is scheduled for this year. The electrolyser in the desert is supposed to prove that the economic production of green hydrogen is possible in partner countries – and thus lay the foundation for further large-scale projects. If everything goes according to plan, there are many indications that the small molecule will finally be able to meet the great expectations in the coming years.
Source: TÜV NORD GROUP