INSIGHT: Chemical industry in Europe challenged to ‘champion’ clean hydrogen

Author: Nigel Davis

2021/06/29

LONDON (ICIS)--The challenges are immense if chemical producers in Europe are expected to become champions in the use of ‘clean’ hydrogen.

The European Commission said earlier this month that it sees chemicals as one of the industrial champions in the use of clean hydrogen, according to chemicals trade federation, Cefic.

The Commission has suggested that the sector could consume about 270,000 tonnes/year of clean hydrogen by 2026 (excluding ammonia and energy use), which is more than 50% of the current level. Achieving that goal, however, across multiple use cases in multiple locations, requires considerable investment and changing mindsets.

Analysis by Petrochemicals Europe published earlier this year shows that 9.6m tonnes/year of hydrogen is used in the EU each year, mostly in the refining and chemical industries for internal or captive use.

Cefic expects hydrogen to play a critical role in reducing the carbon footprint of Europe's energy and feedstock supply during the transition to climate neutrality.

Sources of hydrogen in Europe

Source: Petrochemicals Europe

By 2030, the EU hopes to be creating up to 10m tonnes/year of renewable hydrogen but large, new outlets are needed for the market to develop. One clearly identifiable outlet is transportation but chemicals has a vitally important role to play in this aspect of the energy transition.

Clean hydrogen can replace the grey (or other coloured) hydrogen currently used at integrated chemical production sites in the region. It can be used as a fuel but replacing other hydrocarbons could be problematic because of energy density differences.

Europe is producing about 5.5m tonnes/year of hydrogen which is used mainly to make ammonia and in refineries. Petrochemicals currently is only a minor net producer and consumer of hydrogen, estimated at 500,000 tonnes/year.

THE COLOURS OF HYDROGEN
Green hydrogen is hydrogen on the basis of electrolysis of as green (renewable) as possible electricity.

Blue hydrogen
is hydrogen produced on basis of natural gas or coal with reuse (CCU) or storage of CO2.

Grey (or black) hydrogen
is hydrogen on the basis of a fossil feedstock, mostly natural gas or coal

Brown hydrogen
is hydrogen recovered from industrial processes where hydrogen is a by-product.

Turquoise hydrogen is hydrogen produced from pyrolysis of methane (no CO2 released, but C formed).

In general, there are no established colours for hydrogen from biomass, nuclear or different varieties of grid electricity.

When referring to climate-friendly hydrogen, Cefic refers in the above terminology to green and blue hydrogen.

USES
Clearly, petrochemical plants could use natural gas/hydrogen mixtures to replace some of the natural gas used as a fuel in furnaces, provided the hydrogen is available at a competitive price, to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But burning renewable hydrogen is less fuel efficient than direct electrification of, for example, steam cracking furnaces, a technology that is only in the early stages of development.

It should be seen as a temporary solution, the industry believes, with other avenues for increasing renewable hydrogen demand being sought.

Hydrogen can be converted into other types of fuel, such as ammonia or by using CO2 chemistry into methanol or ‘synthetic liquids’, but this process technology is far from mature and is currently hardly cost effective compared with methanol production from methane.

The cleanest hydrogen will be ‘green’ or produced by electrolysis but this is again a technology that has to be developed at scale to enable costs to become competitive or widely acceptable.

Cefic is facilitating work by the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance Roundtable dealing with industrial applications for new hydrogen based projects seeking EU funding.

Six roundtables have been created which cover all operations in the hydrogen value chain from production to endues, the trade group says. The roundtable include EU Member States, industry EU regional representatives and civil society.

“The Alliance will establish an investment agenda and support the scaling up of the hydrogen value chain across Europe," Cefic said.

“An industry blueprint estimates investments of €430 billion until 2030. It will also be important in the context of the [EU’s] new energy system integration strategy.”

Insight by Nigel Davis

Gowsiga Prabakaran contributed to this article