Driving towards Cleaner Hydrogen Production

by , | Jul 27, 2021 | Energy & Emissions, Sustainability

Jim Cahill

Chief Blogger, Social Marketing Leader

The prevalence of hydrogen as a potentially environmentally friendly energy vector has been gaining momentum in the past couple years and is expected to result in a significant increase in the need for hydrogen-related automation technologies going forward.

I caught a presentation by Ana Gonzalez Hernandez, who is leading Emerson’s Environmental Sustainability programs globally across Emerson. She opened noting some of the key characteristics of this promising decarbonization solution: hydrogen is the most abundant molecule in the universe, it is the lightest element and so has low energy density per unit volume; it is a non-toxic, non-metallic, odorless, colorless and a highly combustible diatomic gas.

It is not an energy source, but an energy carrier, which means its potential decarbonization role has similarities to electricity—although the energy is carried in chemical bonds rather than electrons. This distinction underpins all the reasons why hydrogen might outcompete electricity in some situations (and vice versa).

Both H2 and electricity:

  • Can be produced by various energy sources and technologies
  • Have many different end use applications (from transportation to industrial heating)
  • Have a high CO2 intensity upstream if produced from fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas
  • Emit no greenhouse gases, particulates, SOx or ground level ozone when burned or used

Today, the primary demand for hydrogen is as a chemical feedstock in petroleum refining and ammonia production. About 33 % of the hydrogen produced around the world is used in refineries, 27 % for ammonia synthesis, and about 11 % for methanol production. Hydrogen can be used in its pure form as an energy carrier or as an industrial raw material. It can also be combined with other inputs to produce what are referred to as hydrogen-based fuels and feedstocks. Once produced, electricity and heat can be generated from hydrogen in various ways, such as the fuel cell, hydrogen boiler, as a feedstock for chemicals or in gas turbines.

Although historically hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, the future of hydrogen will need to rely on renewable/low-carbon energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro or nuclear energy. Low-carbon hydrogen production comes mainly from electrolysis—also known as green hydrogen, and conventional fossil fuel production coupled with carbon capture and utilization or storage (CCUS)—known as blue hydrogen.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in their Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 report, demand for hydrogen increases by almost sixfold (from 90 Mt today to 530 Mt in 2050). Overall, hydrogen‐based fuels are expected to account for 13% of global final energy demand in 2050. The initial focus for hydrogen as an energy carrier is conversion of existing uses of fossil energy to low-carbon or green hydrogen in ways that do not immediately require new transmission and distribution infrastructure. After 2030, low-carbon H2 use expands rapidly in all sectors.

Automation technology plays an important role across the entire hydrocarbon supply chain from production through transportation, distribution, and use. Industrial electrolyzers required for large scale green hydrogen production require control, safety and asset management systems and software for safe and reliable operations. Process measurements, valves, pressure regulators and other devices are required in the production process as well as the distribution and consumption endpoints.

While there are many challenges in the path forward to greater green and blue hydrogen production and distribution, the developments in the automation and instrumentation technologies is ongoing. At Emerson, we have extensive experience in producing, transporting, distributing, managing and storing molecules—and the future of hydrogen is therefore a very exciting and promising one for us across the board. Visit the Environmental, Social and Governance section on Emerson.com for more on ways Emerson is helping drive the shift to cleaner energy production and usage.

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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.