Hydrogen is plentiful and clean, but expensive. Solving this puzzle could help solve climate change.


SHEFFIELD, England – Rachel Smith has lived the bumpy journey of green hydrogen, from scientists’ dream to an industry that may be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough. Engineer, two decades ago she started working in a converted barn on the first clean combustion gas production devices.

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

“We’ve been through those short years,” said Smith, executive director of ITM Power, which is run from a new, expansive plant in Sheffield, a dilapidated center for steel mills and coal mines. “We play in the adult world rather than in research labs.”

A consensus is forming among governments, environmentalists and energy companies that significant reductions in carbon emissions will require large amounts of a clean fuel like hydrogen.

Proponents of hydrogen have identified more than two dozen potential applications of the element to reduce carbon emissions. It could be used to power long haul trucks and train and plane travel. Energy companies are experimenting with mixing hydrogen and natural gas for home heating and cooking.

In total, more than 200 large-scale projects are underway to produce or transport hydrogen, representing investments of more than $ 80 billion. Daimler and Volvo, the world’s largest truck makers, plan to start mass-producing long-haul electric trucks in a few years that run on devices called fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity. Water will be the only emission from the trucks.

“You can imagine an economy that relies almost entirely on very clean electricity and very clean hydrogen,” said Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration and now CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative, a research organization.

But he warned that “a lot has to happen” for a gas now mainly used in specialist fields to become “part of the backbone of the energy system.”

Among the obstacles to be overcome: creating enough hydrogen of the right kind, at a price that industries and consumers can accept.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it must be separated from another substance, such as water or fossil fuels. For example, industries like petroleum refining use large amounts of so-called gray hydrogen which is primarily made by separating hydrogen from natural gas. And this process generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the combustion of diesel.

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

Smith’s company in Sheffield is one of the most promising sources of hydrogen produced without producing emissions. It makes devices called electrolysers, which use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is emission-free provided the electricity comes from sources such as wind and solar.

Electrolysers have been around for a century, but analysts say ITM’s technology, known as the polymer electrolyte membrane, has the advantage of being able to turn on and off quickly – a big advantage for machines intended for be coupled with wind and solar parks, the output of which fluctuates with the sun and the breeze.

ITM says the value of its contracts has tripled in the past year to reach 154 million pounds, or roughly $ 213 million. Analysts at Barclays, the UK bank, estimate that a $ 65 billion market for such equipment could materialize over the next decade.

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

ITM now has 310 employees. When it was still a startup, Peter Hargreaves, one of its original investors, had to save the company four times with his own money, he said.

“There was no guarantee that the business would be successful, that people would embrace the hydrogen economy,” said Hargreaves, founder of Hargreaves Lansdown, a brokerage firm. He added that he had now been “well rewarded”.

Until recently, ITM focused on building small devices for facilities such as gas stations, some operated by Shell, which served a relative handful of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Now he is pursuing much larger projects capable of producing enough hydrogen to power fleets of trucks or buses. It has partnered with Linde, the German supplier of industrial gases, which owns 17% of ITM’s capital. This year it moved to the Sheffield plant – the size of two football fields, said to be the world’s largest electrolyzer plant – with the aim of producing facilities on an industrial scale.

The bowels of these gas factories are units with tightly stacked cells, like cafeteria trays, where the separation of hydrogen from water occurs. Many modules can be linked together to form very large installations which in turn can produce abundant clean hydrogen.

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

ITM is also working on a plant to supply up to 45 tonnes of hydrogen per day to an industrial area in the Humber region in north-east England. The electricity would come from an offshore wind farm.

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

For now, however, clean hydrogen projects require government subsidies, and customers should always be prepared to pay more for the energy they produce.

For hydrogen to become a major energy source, other big changes will be needed, such as regulations that encourage the use of green hydrogen in industry and heating. It will also need better infrastructure and consumers ready to adopt new habits.

To take an example, hydrogen has been slow to establish itself as a fuel for cars despite the benefits that include longer runs than contemporary electric batteries and the ability to refuel in minutes.

Shell has already built a network of hydrogen refueling stations in Europe, but German automakers have chosen to focus on battery-powered vehicles. There are only 1,200 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in Germany, and Shell concedes that hydrogen attracts few customers.

At a Shell petrol station in Frankfurt, the hydrogen pump was in the back, where customers clean the inside of their cars. A digital sign to display the price of hydrogen was placed near the entrance to the station, but it was dark.

Industry projections “are overly optimistic about how easy this is going to be,” said Stephanie Searle, director of the fuels program at the International Council for Clean Transportation in Washington, DC. “It will take a lot of commitment to get there.”

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