In this article, Richard Yu, Hydrogen Sector Leader at IMI Critical Engineering, discusses how electrolyser technology is crucial to unlock hydrogen’s full production potential and increase manufacturers accessibility to green hydrogen solutions.
Hydrogen has often been labelled the ‘wonder element’ – invaluable for its chemical properties, abundant in the atmosphere and capable of use as a fuel. As a major energy source with unparalleled ability to decarbonise energy-intensive sectors, hydrogen poses a vital bridge in the transition to sustainable manufacturing. Accordingly, the UK government, in its energy security strategy, has doubled its target for low carbon hydrogen production to 10GW by 2030.
Hydrogen energy has been discussed for well over a century, and as technology has advanced, so has the possibility of realising its full productive potential. Yet forecasts predict that hydrogen will only make up five percent of the world’s energy mix by 2050 – well short of the 15 percent requirement to keep rising global temperatures below 2°C, meaning further questions must be asked about why this is.
Rising operational costs, in light of the energy crisis, has increased the demand for renewable energy sources, pushing industry and governments alike to seriously consider transforming their approach to hydrogen production. For instance, in May the EU declared its ambition to produce 10mn tonnes and import a further 10mn tonnes of renewable hydrogen each year by 2030.
Moreover, reliance on the increasingly unstable and expensive energy grid is ushering firms towards decentralised solutions in which they can generate their own power and gain independence from restrictive national grid infrastructure. Used as an energy vector to store fuel and a renewable energy source for industrial processes, hydrogen’s versatility also creates new possibilities in terms of transforming manufacturing operations.
The ultimate problem facing manufacturers is how to scale up value chains to make renewable hydrogen sources competitive, given that it is currently so expensive and difficult to access. Blue hydrogen is currently being produced at industrial scales and offers a sustainable alternative for heavy industry. However, it is widely accepted that green hydrogen, albeit less developed than its blue counterpart, has more potential in the long term. As it uses renewable energy to turn water into a versatile energy source, green hydrogen holds the potential to replace industrial demand for oil and gas.
One of the most promising methods to access green hydrogen solutions appears to be Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) electrolysis. Provided the electricity used is generated with renewables, this promises to deliver large volumes of pure hydrogen without the penalty of releasing carbon emissions. Industry experts are putting faith in this form of production with the view of displacing fossil fuels in power generation and achieving the sustainability targets set out by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement targets.
Accelerating hydrogen uptake
The uptake of green hydrogen is still limited as new breakthroughs have been slow to reach the manufacturing sector. The water electrolysis also poses practical challenges given the number of large plants still dependent on a fossil –fuel-powered grid. This is what makes green hydrogen so elusive – it is difficult to produce without significant investment and often impractical for many smaller businesses to consider.
Also, with operational costs continuing to rise, firms are understandably wary of investing in a process that is still in early stages of development. This outlines an over-arching challenge industry faces in terms of the energy transition – effectively decentralising hydrogen production so it is accessible to all manufacturers, regardless of size.
While experts may be keen to usher in the era of clean hydrogen energy, the economic and practical barriers to wide-scale adoption must not be underestimated. Despite current hydrogen solutions being available – running from 10MW all the way up to 1GW – these seem suited to the biggest names across industry. Moreover, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s report, green hydrogen currently costs between two and three times more per kg when compared to blue hydrogen.
From a commercial perspective, given the associated costs and operational challenges, considerable headway still needs to be made for companies to seriously consider taking efficient electrolyser technology. This is troubling as, by making carbon reductions through hydrogen energy significantly difficult, firms may see reducing their carbon footprint as a distant, currently unachievable goal.
Accessibility to electrolysis
It is these impediments to incorporating green hydrogen energy measures into production which has led businesses, like IMI Critical Engineering, to apply pre-existing knowledge of process systems to the hydrogen sector. By creating energy-efficient significant packages for smaller-scale manufacturing facilities, these solutions offer manufacturers the ability to adopt green hydrogen energy models without internalising the financial liabilities of doing so, which would have previously been the case.
Unlike most other electrolyser designs, IMI Critical Engineering’s integrated skid solutions can be housed in standard shipping containers and deployed with minimal disruption at a much lower cost. Some of these containers can also be fitted with fuel cells and storage systems, reducing the complications that can arise once the hydrogen itself has been extracted – a common stumbling block for organisations without the ability to capture CO2, for instance when reforming the steam from natural gas. Digital twin analysis can also be used to improve the efficiency of the electrolyser stack, balance supply and demand and optimise surrounding equipment, giving smaller manufacturers access to advanced electrochemical processes and instrumentation without having to gamble on a large or untested investment.
The potential of hydrogen will come from centralised hubs and require major investments in transportation infrastructure across industry. Without it, manufacturers that could be generating clean hydrogen on site will be forced to delay the switch from fossil-based practices.
The strategic importance of decentralising ‘green hydrogen’ production lies in enabling firms, big or small, to internalise their drive to sustainability and abandon reliance on a fossil-fuel grid. PEM electrolysis will be central to the energy transition, though to truly realise the transformative potential of hydrogen energy, industry will need better access to the technology.
About the author
With a decade of experience at IMI Critical Engineering, Richard Yu works closely with teams in the company to drive innovation and develop its hydrogen offering. In his capacity as Director of Business Development – Hydrogen, Richard is committed to developing a more sustainable world by solving the industrial challenges around decarbonisation. He holds a degree in Textile Sciences and Engineering, and has just completed a Master’s Degree in Innovation at Singapore Management University.