H2 Equipment and Services
L. CHARBONNEAU, Emerson, Nantwich, England; and B. BROMBEREK, Emerson, Denver, Colorado
As governments worldwide require cleaner, more stable energy streams amid climate change and market uncertainties, hydrogen (H2) has emerged as a leading alternative to fossil fuels. However, debate continues over the scalability of H2-based energy infrastructure and the necessary steps to make it a viable, cost-effective means of meeting global sustainability goals in the coming years and decades.
In this three-part article series, the authors will examine the economic factors, regulatory and policy trends, and technical and strategic challenges facing the energy industry, exploring how advances in automation and collaboration among stakeholders are improving efficiency, reliability and safety across the entire H2 value chain, from production to transmission to consumption.
The global warming crisis and our response are quickly approaching a tipping point. Where we are and how we got here are perhaps best summed up by a single number—the total gross weight of greenhouse gases (GHG), including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases, measured in metric tons (metric t), released into the environment annually. Since 1970, that figure has increased by 145% to a record high of 36.7 B metric tpy in 2019, which is roughly equivalent to the collective mass of every artificially made object on Earth since the start of the 20th century (or about 360 times the weight of the Great Wall of China), all emitted in a single year.1,2 Not until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 did GHG emissions in the U.S. fall below 6 B metric tpy for the first time in 30 yr.3
Most environmental, social and governmental (ESG) initiatives are based on achieving net-zero emissions, or the equivalent of carbon-neutral operations, by the year 2050, the timeframe set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Technological challenges, geopolitical conflicts, disease, natural disasters, supply chain breakdowns and finding agreement among global governments and regulatory agencies—many of whose political and economic agendas seemed irreconcilable not long ago—have caused real progress toward the 2050 goal to come in fits and starts, at least so far.
Unlike former paradigm shifts, the incentive for transitioning from fossil fuels to a green economy goes far beyond the usual business, social and legal concerns. With the scientific advancement and agreement required among industry and government leaders regarding how to best tackle the issue, such an undertaking will almost certainly look and feel different than previous technological revolutions. The transition to sustainability will be gradual, and the world’s primary energy sources will still come from fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. However, and undoubtedly, unprecedented and uniquely powerful forces of solidarity and urgency are driving innovation.
Both the public and private sectors have recognized the ethical and existential imperatives and the opportunities to improve global commerce, encouraging research and development, spurring investment and creating millions of skilled-labor jobs. In 2021, almost 81% of new energy capacity expansion worldwide came from renewable sources, a sharp increase over the previous 20-yr rate, indicating that investing in green technology is not just feasible but practically mandatory to maintain a competitive advantage.4
Why H2? Why now? For the past 15 yr, the renewable energy discussion has centered mostly on photovoltaic solar panel and wind turbine technologies. Still, as solar and wind have developed into more cost-effective and globally available power sources, another alternative has come to the forefront: H2. Elemental H2, in gaseous or liquid form, has the highest energy content by weight of all known fuels—three times greater than gasoline—and is a critical feedstock for the ammonia, steel and cement industries.
H2 fuel cells and combustion-based technologies could virtually eliminate all GHG emissions in transportation, stationary power and portable power applications, and H2 can store practically limitless gigawatt hours (GWh) of energy as a responsive load on the power grid, improving stability and increasing the utilization of nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable sources. Perhaps most importantly, H2 is extremely fungible, flexible and easily synthesized into different forms. Due to this versatility, renewable H2 could reduce global GHG emissions by 25% if produced at scale.5
Indeed, scale and cost are ultimately what H2’s market viability as a renewable fuel and global commodity depends on. H2 is the most abundant element in the universe but is rarely found in its pure form on Earth, so it must be manufactured either by separating it from oxygen in water molecules using electrolysis (renewable or green H2) or by refining it from fossil fuel feedstocks (e.g., coal or natural gas) and using carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) for decarbonization to create blue H2.
Demand for H2 has increased 28% over the last decade, to the point where about 70 MM metric tpy are produced, compared to 4.1 B metric tpy of oil and gas.6 Nearly all the output (99.6%) is H2 processed from fossil-based feedstocks in large central plants through steam methane reforming (SMR) or coal gasification, methods that have been used since the 1970s. Only a small fraction of the H2 produced today can be called renewable—produced by electrolysis with power generated from hydroelectric, wind or solar sources. However, that share is beginning to grow exponentially, and with it, so are novel methods of producing, delivering, storing, converting and using H2 as a raw material.
According to a 2021 estimate by the Energy Transitions Commission, $15 T in investment will be required to decarbonize the world’s manufacturing industries by 2050 using H2-based technologies.7 If that figure seems arbitrary or prohibitive, the reality is that where there may have been skepticism before, industrial consumers in many sectors are now looking at low-carbon H2 in a new light, especially those with the most GHG emissions to abate, like transportation, agriculture, textiles, construction and forestry, as well as energy-intensive sectors such as ammonia, steel and, in particular, cement production, which alone emits almost as much CO2 as the entire global transportation sector.
ESG initiatives and stronger emissions regulations have pressured the petrochemical industry to make cleaner, higher-grade products. A vehicle can travel twice as far running on a H2 fuel cell as on a combustion engine using the same amount of gasoline or diesel, a rate of energy efficiency that, given recent uncertainty around gas prices, is difficult to ignore. This is also one of the reasons analysts project that demand for low-carbon H2 could skyrocket from less than 1 MM metric tpy today to 223 MM metric tpy by 2050, with renewable power overtaking ammonia production as the biggest consumer of H2 approximately 15 yr from now. As cost efficiencies rise with demand, an estimated $600 B in capital expenditure (CAPEX) investment opportunities will open in the U.S. market alone.8
Concurrently, government, technological and commercial leaders must overcome significant but solvable challenges to realize H2’s benefits and growth potential fully. H2-enabling technologies are not one-size-fits-all for every application, particularly where it involves transporting it from producer to the consumer using ammonia, liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC) or metal powders as safer, less volatile H2 storage mediums.
Novel applications for H2 are in the research and development stage. Rising diesel prices due to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the ensuing embargo on Russian crude oil have also renewed focus on H2’s market viability as an alternative fuel in the trucking and passenger transportation sectors. The war has pressured the European Union (EU) to become energy independent even faster, ramping up investment in renewable H2 and other alternative streams and prompting governments to strategically stockpile H2 as an emergency energy source at major ports, such as Antwerp, Belgium.
The H2 value chain explained. The global H2 value chain can be divided into three main stages: production, storage/distribution and utilization/consumption. H2 can be made from diverse production pathways, namely fossil fuels with carbon capture, biomass (e.g., human and animal waste streams) and water-splitting technologies (e.g., electrolysis), all of which are being actively explored and developed by public and private research (FIG. 1). Today, most low-carbon H2 is produced from natural gas, typically CH4, using catalytic SMR to separate the H2 molecule from the feedstock and applying CCUS to mitigate the amount of carbon released into the environment.
While they are presently the lowest-cost, highest-capacity option, fossil streams are being supplemented by the fermentation of biomass sources (e.g., switchgrass and poplar trees) and biogas from landfills and agricultural waste, which can also be gasified or reformed and combined with CCUS to provide cleaner water, electricity and raw materials for chemical products.
The most potentially transformative and economically sustainable H2 production method is electrolysis, which splits water into H2 and oxygen using electric, thermal or light energy from solar, wind, nuclear and other sources. Electrolyzers—including those that use liquid-alkaline and membrane-based technologies—offer near-term commercial viability, with units being constructed today at the multi-megawatt (MW) scale and a growing list of greenfield projects planned throughout the EU and North America in the next decade.
However, when H2 is made, it must be safely transported and stored until it is ready to be used. This is done either as a gas in pipelines and high-pressure tube trailers, as a liquid in specially equipped tanker trucks and ships or using chemical H2 carriers such as LOHC or ammonia. H2 in either a gaseous or liquid state can be stored in tanks at terminals or in geological formations, such as salt domes. The technologies and infrastructure required to support these delivery pathways are in various stages of development but must be cost-effective and meet the level of safety, convenience, reliability and energy efficiency expected from existing infrastructure for fossil fuels.
H2 is usually consumed through the electric and gas grids in four forms: an energy storage medium and engine fuel; via commercial and residential heating; in chemical refining, agriculture and food production; and through transportation, using compact H2 fuel cells or traditional combustion engines in shipping, trains, aviation and heavy transport. Low-carbon H2 can also be blended with natural gas, injected into existing transmission pipelines and used for heat and power, with lower emissions than natural gas alone. Each of these four utilization pathways poses unique technical, logistical and administrative challenges that must be overcome to facilitate standardization, speed adoption and drive prices down to commercially viable levels.
The next installment (Part 2) in this series will examine some of the key prerequisites that must be in place before the global economy can successfully transition to H2 and explain how automation is helping to speed up the process in all three value chain phases, beginning with production.
1 United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Global greenhouse gas emissions data,” February 2023, online: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data#Trends
2 National Geographic, “Human-made materials now equal weight of all life on Earth,” December 2020, online: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/human-made-materials-now-equal-weight-of-all-life-on-earth
3 United States Environmental Protection Agency, “U.S. inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, 1990–2020,” April 2022, online: https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2022-04/us-ghg-inventory-2022-main-text.pdf
4 International Renewable Energy Agency, “Renewable capacity highlights,” April 2022, online: https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2022/Apr/IRENA_-RE_Capacity_Highlights_2022.pdf?la=en&hash=6122BF5666A36BECD5AAA2050B011ECE255B3BC7
5 Bloomberg, “Hydrogen is a trillion-dollar bet on the future,” December 2020, online: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-opinion-hydrogen-green-energy-revolution-challenges-risks-advantages/
6 Wood Mackenzie, “The rise of the hydrogen economy,” online: https://www.woodmac.com/market-insights/topics/hydrogen-guide/
7 Reuters, “$15 trillion global hydrogen investment needed to 2050-research,” April 2021, online: https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/15-trillion-global-hydrogen-investment-needed-2050-research-2021-04-26/
8 Wood Mackenzie, “Hydrogen: The $600 billion investment opportunity,” April 2022, online: https://www.woodmac.com/news/opinion/hydrogen-the-us$600-billion-investment-opportunity/
About the authors
LOIC CHARBONNEAU is a Global Project Director with Emerson’s Global Strategic Projects business. Charbonneau a sustainability expert, focusing on H2 as a mainstream energy carrier and how adoption can be accelerated across the value chain. His experience covers alkaline and proton-exchange membrane electrolysis and microgrid developments using renewable energy sources. Originally from Montreal, Charbonneau moved to the UK in 2004. He has more than 25 yr experience in process dynamics, advanced control, reliability and simulation. Charbonneau served as an advisory board member on the PowerGen Europe committee from 2016–2017, and has authored several technical articles on combined-cycle power plant optimization and digital twin strategies for green H2 projects. Charbonneau earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from Laval University in Quebec City.
BRANDON BROMBEREK is a Vice President in Emerson’s Measurement Solutions business. He enables customers in the oil and gas industry to apply Emerson’s automation technology capabilities to drive results for more sustainable operations, and optimized production and costs. Bromberek’s sustainability expertise centers on H2 and how automation advances developments across the value chain. Bromberek joined Emerson in 2018 after 13 yr in oilfield services. He sits on the board of directors for the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Flow Measurement Technical Section and holds a project management license from the Project Management Institute. Bromberek earned a BS degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and an MS degree in management for the oil and gas industry from Heriot-Watt University.