Manufacturing is gearing up for another industrial revolution, and this time the goal is a greener industry. The nature of the sector poses unique challenges - of which the most pressing is finding alternative fuel to natural gas for the large-scale furnaces that the production of many materials, including iron, steel, and glass, depends on.
It’s a question which the industry is running out of time to solve, as long investment cycles and the prospect of new furnaces being in service for decades bring the UK and EU targets of net zero by 2050 into sharp focus.
Faced with this unenviable position, many manufacturers are turning to low-carbon gases as a fuel source that allows them to transition away from natural gas and other fossil fuel inputs, without having to invest in entirely new furnaces or rely on a volatile electricity market.
Hydrogen is the gas with the most potential to have an impact at scale as a fuel for heavy industries that are traditionally difficult to decarbonise. It’s a resource that has, to some extent, been hiding in plain sight; hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and water is the only byproduct when burning it to produce energy.
The reason that hydrogen is low-carbon and not no-carbon is that it must be separated from other elements in water and fossil fuels before it can be used.
It’s in the home of UK manufacturing, the north west, that the push to make hydrogen a viable and scalable option is coming from all sides.
On the industry side, businesses are driving demand for the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure, and legislators and research organisations are responding in kind to provide this resource readily and affordably. The HyNet project, the UK’s leading industrial decarbonisation, is connecting current and future industrial hydrogen users across the region with a single pipeline, while a partner project is developing capacity to sustainably transport and lock away carbon safely.
The UK government is supporting this effort by putting the regulatory framework in place that these businesses need to demonstrate the positive impact of low-carbon hydrogen. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero recently unveiled plans to create a globally recognised standard for low-carbon hydrogen.
This is a smaller task compared to the work needed to implement the infrastructure, but it’s a crucial step in cementing hydrogen as a sustainable fuel in the minds of businesses, investors and consumers, and further the build motive as well as the opportunity for adoption.
Through the looking glass
Cheshire-based container glass manufacturer, Encirc is one manufacturer that is embracing low-carbon gases as an alternative to natural gas in heavy industry. The glass manufacturing process is harder than most to decarbonise; in the UK, the industry produces up to 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year, and is heavily reliant on natural gas used in furnaces.
The need to heat glass at both ends make entirely electric furnaces technically challenging, so Encirc plans to invest in hybrid furnaces – using a mix of low carbon electricity and gases, with hydrogen supplied by the HyNet project. This will allow the company to start cutting emissions sooner rather than later, and pass those savings down to consumers up and down the country.
At the manufacturer’s other major site in Derrylin, Northern Ireland, the focus is on a different low-carbon gas. Encirc is a lead partner in the Biomethane NI research programme, which intends to replace up to 80% of Northern Ireland’s natural gas requirements with biomethane containing as little as 3% CO2. A trial at Derrylin in 2021 saw the carbon footprint of each bottle produced using biofuel fall by 90%. Most importantly, biomethane can be used with existing infrastructure, removing the need for large-scale, long-term investment in new furnaces.
Fiacre O’Donnell, Director of Sustainability at Encirc said: “Furnaces reliant on natural gas are a real Achilles’ heel for the container glass industry, and going fully electric simply isn’t feasible in the timeframe needed.
“The answer for us has been a holistic approach that takes advantage of the resources we have access to In Cheshire and Northern Ireland. There will be no cure-all for heavy industry, so everyone needs to learn to be flexible, but there can be a sustainable future of UK manufacturing.”
Low-carbon gases don’t just offer the chance to decarbonise, but also represent steadier ground at a time when manufacturers are under pressure from volatile energy prices and insecure supplies. In early 2023, Make UK, the manufacturing lobby group highlighted energy costs as the biggest threat to the survival of UK manufacturers.
Against this backdrop, manufacturers are exploring low-carbon gases as way to forge a sustainable future built on homegrown energy not dependent on international politics, and of which the price is likely to decrease as capacity expands.
In this context, long investment cycles typical of the industry also put the emphasis on low-carbon gases as the most sustainable option. Furnaces will be in service for decades, and manufacturers will be unable to react quickly prices spike in prices or the supply is interrupted. For many, a long-term focus on renewables, even if it means an upfront R&D investment, is the sensible choice.
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About the author
Fiacre O’Donell, Director of Sustainability at Encirc
Fiacre joined Encirc in 1998. Having held various roles in planning, sales, marketing and sustainability, he was appointed Sustainability Director of Encirc’s Spanish-based parent company, Vidrala in 2020.
An alumni of the Timoney Institute, he holds an MBA from the Ulster Business school and a PG Certificate in Sustainable Business from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). He is a past winner of the Drink Business ‘Green personality of the year’ for the work undertaken to decarbonise the UK beverage industry and the current holder of the George Dawson award for services to the environment. He is a member of both the BITC NI environmental leadership and climate champions teams and is a board member of the NI Chamber of Commerce