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Tension arises as clean hydrogen projects spread

Saudi Arabia to build world’s largest plant for green hydrogen as the UK plans a big blue hydrogen project

by Alex Scott
July 9, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 27


Big H2 plans
Air Products and partners will make green hydrogen in Saudi Arabia, combine it with nitrogen to form ammonia, ship the ammonia around the world, and then extract the hydrogen for use as a vehicle fuel.
Credit: Air Products/C&EN

Companies have announced two major projects to produce clean hydrogen for fuel and chemical use as debate grows over just what clean hydrogen is.

Air Products is partnering with the Saudi energy firm ACWA Power and the Saudi development agency Neom to build in northwest Saudi Arabia what will be the world’s largest facility for green hydrogen—hydrogen made by electrolyzing water with renewable energy.

The partners will use alkaline water electrolyzers produced by the German engineering firm Thyssenkrupp to convert water into oxygen and about 650 metric tons (t) per day of hydrogen. They plan to build 4 GW of solar and wind energy facilities—the world’s largest renewable energy project—to power the electrolyzers.

The hydrogen project, due to start up in 2025, will cost $5 billion and be equally owned by the three partners. Infrastructure to distribute hydrogen for use in fuel-cell buses and trucks worldwide will cost $2 billion and be owned and paid for 100% by Air Products.

To transport the hydrogen, the partners plan to convert it into ammonia, which is easier and safer to ship. To make the ammonia, Air Products will extract nitrogen from air and then combine it with the hydrogen in a process provided by Haldor Topsoe. The plant will have capacity to make 1.2 million t per year of ammonia. One t of ammonia contains 177 kg of hydrogen.

Once at its market location, the ammonia will be dissociated back into hydrogen and nitrogen. Air Products is not disclosing the efficiency of the full process.

“Is this feasible? No one really knows,” says Ben Gallagher, senior analyst with the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. He points to layers of uncertainty associated with the project: its massive size, the processing of hydrogen to ammonia and back again, and that some major renewable energy projects in Saudi Arabia have not materialized as announced.

Air Products estimates the project will save more than 3 million t per year of CO2 emissions compared to hydrogen produced via standard steam methane reforming of natural gas—equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 700,000 cars.

Meanwhile, a group of firms has announced plans for a large facility in the UK to produce blue hydrogen—hydrogen made from natural gas but with the separation and storing of by-product CO2.

Led by the Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor, that project is to be built at Saltend Chemicals Park near Hull, England, for start-up in 2026. The resulting hydrogen will be supplied to chemical companies at the site and be blended with natural gas at a 30% concentration to feed a power plant at the park.

The project is to include the world’s largest auto thermal reformer, a variation on the steam methane reformer. Equinor claims that it will save 900,000 t per year of CO2. “We plan to transform the UK’s largest industrial cluster into its greenest cluster,” Al Cook, Equinor’s UK manager, says in a statement.

About 100 large-scale hydrogen projects are being planned globally, mostly in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and Australia, Gallagher says.

The European Commission has set a target for hydrogen to meet 14% of Europe’s energy needs by 2050. To help reach this goal, the EC is gearing up to spend billions of dollars in a post-COVID-19 economic stimulus package that it hopes will attract private investment to create a combined fund of $200 billion.

The EC proposes cofunding any blue hydrogen project in which roughly 90% of the CO2 is captured and stored. But such a policy would be a “huge mistake” because it would divert resources from green hydrogen, according to the European Environmental Bureau, which represents more than 140 environmental organizations across Europe.

“Investing in fossil-based hydrogen, whose production is already available at industrial scale, risks making truly clean and fossil-free hydrogen uncompetitive for the EU market,” Barbara Mariani, the bureau’s senior policy officer, says in a statement.

Hydrogen from fossil fuel currently costs about $1.65–$1.90/kg. Blue hydrogen is expected to cost $2.20/kg and green hydrogen $2.80–$6.15/kg, according to the EC.

The EC is unapologetic for backing blue hydrogen projects, some of which are proposed by large oil companies. “I’ve no shame in saying this: we need industry on board,” EC executive vice president Frans Timmermans told journalists at a recent press briefing.



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James Freeman (July 11, 2020 11:00 AM)
Solar and wind are not carbon free.
alex scott (July 14, 2020 7:02 AM)
James, Many thanks for highlighting this. I would entirely agree with you. We didn't have the opportunity to get in such details of how much CO2 it costs to put together a wind turbine or PV array in this article. Safe to say, though, that it is a fraction of hydrogen from petrochemicals/fossil fuels. Alex Scott
Stanislav Jaracz (July 15, 2020 12:23 PM)
How does this opinion relate to the topic of the article?
Ralph Whitney (July 15, 2020 10:52 AM)
"Hydrogen from fossil fuel currently costs about $1.65–$1.90/kg."
I know an engineer who works for one of the large industrial gas companies that produces hydrogen from steam reforming of methane. The company was approached by a hydrogen fuel consortium about supplying hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, however the industrial hydrogen produced from fossil fuels did not meet the technical specifications required for fuel cell applications. It would therefore be interesting to know how much upgrading of fossil fuel hydrogen is required to meet fuel cell applications.
alex scott (July 15, 2020 11:02 AM)
Hi Ralph, ah that is a v interesting question. Would you please share my contact with your engineer colleague. Perhaps we could do a follow up article looking at exactly this issue.
Many thanks
Alex Scott
Stanislav Jaracz (July 15, 2020 12:12 PM)
As a chemist, efficiency hunter and environmentalist, I can't understand how someone can suggest to convert very useful renewable electricity into hydrogen (70-80% efficiency), separate nitrogen from air, then make toxic ammonia (energy required), transport it on surface, then use additional energy to extract the hydrogen back, then another energy to compress it, then pump the highly compressed gas into another vehicle (possibly the one loaded with ammonia) to be converted at meager 50% efficiency into electricity to power electric power train. This power train still needs well sized battery to provide peak energy and to store energy from regenerative breaking. So, the usable space in such a vehicle is much diminished vs. just having modern & cheap Li-ion battery and charge it from the renewable energy system. Why are we still investing into hydrogen for transportation? The scheme in the article is screamingly foolish. If we need ammonia as a feed stock (e.g. fertilizer), this makes sense. But fuel? Non sense.
John Vaccaro (July 18, 2020 8:21 AM)
Adding the exquisite phrase "screamingly foolish" to my Lexicon, stat. Well done!
J Muirhead (October 14, 2020 7:21 PM)
From an efficiency point of view very foolish, but efficiency is not the whole argument.
Li-ion batteries provide limited range followed by a long recharge period, are not very environmentally friendly to make, and lose capacity the more and faster that you recharge them.
Hydrogen or even ammonia fuel cells do not have those limitations. Using this process you can make the ammonia and hydrogen products in places where there is lots of solar energy, and transport it in dense form (ammonia) to locations where solar energy is not so available. Thus moving the energy from one place to another, a process which you could not do with electricity itself, as the cabling required would be unachievable from e.g. Saudi to northern europe.
So, perhaps not as foolish as people might think.
Prakash Bhate (July 17, 2020 12:18 AM)
Well said. 'Screamingly foolish' sums it up aptly.

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