We’re at a very exciting moment for the global hydrogen fuel market. Well past the prototype stage with fuel cells, electrolyzers (the units that separate water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen) and fueling stations, the industry has incentive to scale up. Focusing on just one part of that market, the fuel cell, demonstrates the opportunity: The global hydrogen fuel cell market’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is forecast at a robust 45.3 percent between 2022 and 2029, with projections of a market value reaching $17.88 billion in that time.
However, there is no guarantee of realizing that level of growth. The number of fuel cell electronic vehicles (FCEVs) sold in the United States in 2020 was less than 16,000, and that represented a sales decrease from the year before. Green or low-emission hydrogen still accounts for less than 1 percent of total hydrogen production, and is very expensive to produce. Meanwhile, the number of fueling stations must increase rapidly to stimulate demand in the FCEV market. There is much to be done if hydrogen technology is going to account for 6 percent of global cumulative emissions reductions by 2050.
To manage risk and scale ambitious, complex hydrogen production projects, we need strong partnerships between innovators and automation experts.
The innovators who are working to make hydrogen technology scalable, more efficient, and profitable are still undertaking significant risk. Equipment manufacturers and end users are often tasked with ramping up production even while they are still refining the engineering of components and complete solutions. To realize the hydrogen’s potential in the narrow time frames of our ambitious climate goals, we need a concentrated, all-hands effort.
Automation experts will play a critical role in developing each component of the hydrogen value chain. From increasing electrolyzer capacity to efficient fuel storage and safe, high-flow dispensing at fuel stations, the products and expertise of companies like Emerson will be essential to mitigating risk at every development stage.
What’s more, the automation approach must be holistic. It must include instrumentation that is suited to handling a light, volatile fuel source like hydrogen; software solutions that enable predictive maintenance and real-time insights into performance; and reliable services that can help OEMs and end users build and maintain their products and solutions.
Here are four ways a strong automation partner can help the hydrogen market mature, while also controlling short- and long-term expenses:
1. Help designs and capacity scale to meet market demand
A promising market is a great opportunity, but it also brings pressure on an industry that lacks a robust infrastructure and established solutions. Partnering with an automation expert that has many products in the field already supporting hydrogen applications can keep development on track.
For instance, in proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzers, which are used in green hydrogen projects, maximum efficiency depends on highly accurate measurement of oxygen and hydrogen production as these product gases exit the electrolyzer stack. Tools that provide precision pressure control, such as an electropneumatic PID controller, are key to this process.
Electolyzer manufacturers can build out solutions with more confidence if the products they choose have been working in other applications. As an example, Emerson regulators and controllers have operated in space-bound rockets and the International Space Station, while adhering to strict military and international standards. This proven performance can help hydrogen infrastructure producers build package solutions and plug-and-play operation, reducing testing time and making operations scaling attainable.
2. Keep new projects on time and in budget
Even with proven instrumentation in well-established industries, it can be difficult to optimize production and control costs. Almost every aspect of hydrogen technology will be prototyping and testing new solutions while keeping a close eye on operating and capital expenses.
Automation leaders that offer powerful digital tools and simulation software can help these producers create digital twins and optimize a physical environment before it is commissioned. This can include advanced testing before operations start and opportunities to train operators with minimal impact on the running process. Hydrogen OEMs and end users alike can greatly benefit by saving on commissioning time and cost.
As an example, consider that PEM electolyzers are still much more expensive, in both CAPEX and OPEX terms, than fossil-fuel-based hydrogen counterparts. Governments are funding some
large-scale projects to drive unit costs down, but to scale rapidly, production costs must be brought down. Cost-efficient automation and compact, integrated plug-and-play solutions can help pave the way for scaling up green hydrogen production.
3. Provide advanced technology platforms to monitor hydrogen application performance
Once up and running, every part of the hydrogen value chain will depend on efficient performance to remain economically viable. Currently, hydrogen refueling station downtime is usually caused by a malfunctioning component such as a chiller, air compressor, or valve. Hydrogen’s potential as an alternative fuel depends on component reliability and regular maintenance events that can help minimize or prevent unplanned downtime. Station operators will need real-time data and insights to their systems for optimized operations and compliance with emissions and safety standards.
Automation experts can support these objectives by delivering sensor systems that monitor the health of pneumatic components, detect leakages, and optimize costly compressed air consumption. Collecting more rich data on intelligent platforms with open-source software will also help operators improve decision-making and predictive maintenance at every stage while delivering same reliable experience drivers have come to expect from stations dispensing diesel and gas fuel.
4. Ensure safety in volatile environments
Given hydrogen’s lightness and combustibility, it represents a safety risk wherever a leak occurs. Safety controls must meet an exacting standard in every application.
In fueling stations, hydrogen can be subject to sudden and extreme changes in pressure and temperature. Without quality instrumentation, external leakages, tank degradations, and unsafe heat exposure are much more likely to occur.
A fueling station will contain a network of valves, pressure regulators, shutoff valves, and other instruments that connect buffer storage tanks, chillers, dispensers, and the vehicle tank. Procuring components with extensive field experience and testing can help ensure safety compliance and high reliability.
Furthermore, working with a single-source automation provider that is also invested in the hydrogen value chain, and focused on automation safety, can lead to costs savings and quality control at every stage of a project.
Hydrogen’s time is now
Opportunity, urgency, and active investment have primed the hydrogen fuel industry for an exciting new growth stage. Like any market, there will be winners and losers. OEMs and end users will need automation suppliers with comprehensive offers, deep expertise, flexibility, and a commitment to safety. There are many factors that can help us realize our clean energy goals. Automation’s strong partnership with hydrogen producers is essential to early and sustained growth.