Far from being the fuel of the future, is hydrogen the fuel of today?

Posted on 25 Mar 2022 by Jonny Williamson

Booming global demand is powering the growth of one of the UK’s leading green hydrogen companies. Based in Sheffield, ITM Power currently boasts the world’s largest electrolyser factory, with a second plant in the works, and international expansion on the horizon. Jonny Williamson reports.

Many see hydrogen as the answer to our energy problems. The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a storable, lightweight, energy dense fuel source with numerous industrial and chemical applications. Yet, pure hydrogen is virtually impossible to find. It is almost always attached to another element, primarily oxygen (water) or carbon (methane). Most of the 70 million tonnes of hydrogen produced each year, 96%, is extracted from natural gas through the process of steam methane reforming. The extraction process is incredibly energy intensive and emits vast quantities of carbon dioxide – around 830 million tonnes annually.

Based in Sheffield, ITM Power currently boasts the world’s largest electrolyser factory
Based in Sheffield, ITM Power currently boasts the world’s largest electrolyser factory

The type of hydrogen generated depends on whether these carbon emissions are captured and safely stored (blue) or vented into the atmosphere (grey). Blue hydrogen clearly holds environmental advantages over the currently more common grey variety. However, scepticism towards commercial scale deployment and safety means it is far from the ideal solution.

Green hydrogen is the cleanest type possible, created solely from renewable energy and water. An electric current is used to split water into its constituent molecules of hydrogen and oxygen, a technique called electrolysis. The result is a sustainable, zero-emissions fuel that can be stored as a gas or a liquid, used for grid balancing, or used to decarbonise industrial processes, transport and heating. Demand for green hydrogen is intensifying as governments around the world look to replace the fossil fuels used in homes, factories and transport.

This is welcome news for ITM Power. The company designs and manufactures green hydrogen electrolysers based on its proprietary proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. Its Gigafactory, located within the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, employs more than 350 people and is the world’s largest of its kind. It has an annual electrolyser manufacturing capacity of 1,000MW (1GW), the equivalent of 364 utility-grade wind turbines. In energy terms, it’s enough to fully charge 9,000 Nissan Leafs or power 100 million LED lights.

The Gigafactory was only officially opened last August but already the company has announced plans to build a second, more automated factory two miles away at the University of Sheffield Innovation District. With an operating capacity of 1.5GW, this second site is expected to provide the template for ITM Power’s first international facility. All told, the company expects to have a total annual capacity of 5GW by the end of 2024 – enough energy to power 3,750,000 homes.

Powering up

A deciding factor in this planned future growth will be the ready availability of hydrogen engineers and scientists. Recognising this, ITM Power has teamed up with the University of Sheffield to codevelop a National Hydrogen Research, Innovation and Skills Centre. The centre, to be located close to ITM Power’s proposed new site, will further research into the safe and efficient manufacture of hydrogen using renewable energy, nuclear power or a combination.

Research at the centre is expected to include the manufacture of hydrogen using renewable energy and/or nuclear power production, product life cycle analysis, and the recycling and recovery of system components. It will also explore how virtual reality tools, already in use by ITM Power, could further enhance manufacturing and aftersales maintenance activities. With more than 40 countries announcing hydrogen strategies by the end of 2021, and the gas supply crisis in Europe expected to accelerate adoption, I sat down with Commercial Manager, Barry Cunliffe, to hear why 2022 could be a breakthrough year for ITM Power.

Q. Why is hydrogen suddenly getting so much attention?

BC: Growing pressure to decarbonise is one of the primary factors. Skyrocketing energy prices for both domestic and industrial use is another. A large part of that is because of our addiction and reliance on imported hydrocarbon fuels. Soon, we will see a shift in approach towards energy harvesting rather than simply paying to import petrol, oil and gas. There are multiple sources of energy available – wind, tidal, solar, thermal, bio. The issue is being able to store it and use it at the right time.

Staff at TTM Giggafactory
Staff at ITM Giggafactory: Image courtesy of Shaun Flannery

Grid balancing is a major factor. Balancing the grid is crucial in matching the supply of energy to demand. But more renewable energy being installed into the grid has made that more challenging due to the unpredictability of wind, for example. It’s common for wind farms to be turned off at night because power demand is lower than during the day. Wind farms are even paid to not generate electricity. Our electrolysers enable excess energy to be converted into green hydrogen, stored and added to the grid as and when needed. That ability brings our energy system full circle.

Q. Can the national gas grid handle the introduction of hydrogen?

We know we can blend up to 20% hydrogen into the regular gas supply and that doing so would significantly reduce CO2 emissions. ITM Power supplied the electrolyser system at the heart of a ground-breaking £22.5m innovation HyDeploy project led by Cadent and Northern Gas. HyDeploy has made significant progress in the technical and regulatory requirements to enable the introduction of a green hydrogen blend within the UK gas distribution network.

The first phase of the project was based at Keele University in Staffordshire, which was specifically chosen for being the largest university campus in the UK. Keele has a private gas network, of which 100 homes and 30 university faculty buildings receive the blended gas. The trial was designed to determine the level of hydrogen which could be used by gas consumers safely and with no changes to existing domestic appliances. The success of that phase, which ended in March 2021, led to a second larger demonstration on a public network in Winlaton, Gateshead. The project is expected to run until June 2022. Heating homes and industry accounts for nearly half of all energy use in the UK and one-third of the country’s carbon emissions. If a 20% hydrogen blend was rolled out across the country it could save around six million tonnes of carbon emissions every year, the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road.

Q. Where are you seeing the greatest appetite for your systems?

Ten years ago, we were largely focused on the European continent because that’s where all the developments and understanding were, certainly on the electrolyser side. Today, we’re seeing interest from every major economy around the world. We are seeing a strong appetite for all three of the key applications for our electrolysers – hydrogen fuel stations for vehicles, power-to-gas projects and decarbonising industry, particularly petrochemical refining. We are also seeing energy intensive sectors such as steel, glass and ceramics producers taking a keen interest in hydrogen as part of their decarbonisation agendas, as well as to mitigate the high cost of energy.

Q. How are you scaling production to meet demand?

We have put a lot of development into product standardisation and manufacturing cost reduction to scale production. There are two aspects to our manufacturing. We make fully integrated, turnkey electrolyser containers which include the electrolyser stack, the process equipment, water management, hydrogen purification and a PLC control system. We also supply just the electrolyser for integration into large-scale industrial projects of 10MW and above. Our expertise is in the development and sale of the core technology, not in civil engineering and pouring concrete foundations. In 2019, we entered into a joint venture and partnership with Linde Engineering, one of the world’s largest industrial gas providers, in order to deliver green hydrogen at scale.

 The electrolyser will reduce the Porsgrunn plant’s carbon emissions by approximately 41,000 tonnes IMAGE: YARA INTERNATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY
The electrolyser will reduce the Porsgrunn plant’s carbon emissions by approximately 41,000 tonnes: Image courtesy of Yara International 

A great example of how that partnership works is our recent sale of a 24MW electrolyser to Linde Engineering to be installed at Yara International’s Porsgrunn facility, about 140km outside of Oslo. Porsgrunn is the largest industrial site in Norway and produces three million tonnes of fertiliser a year. Globally, the largest use of hydrogen today, produced from hydrocarbons, is in the production of ammonia for fertilisers. Yara intends to replace its current grey hydrogen with green hydrogen to deliver the world’s first fossil-free ammonia products.

Alongside manufacturing, R&D in the core technology has been, and will continue to be, very important to our business. We’ve been a consistent recipient of R&D tax credits and partaken in multiple Innovate UK grant schemes, among others. Interestingly, we’re now seeing the focus of grants shift to real-world applications rather than the fundamental R&D. We’re also seeing more and more end users putting their CAPEX into these projects, particularly in energy intensive industries.

Q. Are you monitoring your active projects, and if so, how does this inform future projects?

We have a control centre that runs 24/7/365 that pulls in data from our equipment in the field, where customers have bought that warranty and maintenance service from us. It’s relatively small at the moment but we expect it to grow significantly as more of our systems are installed around the world. This data provides performance insights that we can use for preventative maintenance purposes and feed back to our R&D team.

We are also exploring how machine learning and AI can help us to forecast issues ahead of time, which would enable us to deliver predictive maintenance.

Q. How easy is it to integrate one of your containers into an existing site?

We use the term ‘plug-and-play’ for good reason. The end-customer supplies electricity and water which is of drinking quality, and the autonomous unit takes care of the rest. The end result is high-purity hydrogen gas which is ready for use in refuelling stations, gas-grid injection and any other industrial process which requires hydrogen. The market for green hydrogen is vast and diverse, and we haven’t even seen its full potential yet.

Electrolyser stack used at Porsgrunn Norway IMAGE ITM POWER
Electrolyser stack used at Porsgrunn Norway: Image courtesy of ITM Power

Types of hydrogen

GREEN – Created solely from renewable energy and water through the process of electrolysis. This results in a clean, zero-emissions fuel.

BLUE – Derived from natural gas through the process of steam methane reforming – however, this produces CO2 which must then be captured and safely stored.

PINK – Created by electrolysis powered by heat and electricity from nuclear power. Production depends on availability of nuclear power.

TURQUOISE – Made using a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon from natural gas.

BROWN – Converting carbonrich materials – such as coal – into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. This results in substantial carbon emissions. GREY – Is the most common form of hydrogen, produced by reforming natural gas (methane). This results in substantial carbon emissions.

Decarbonising refineries

REFHYNE - Image used for Hydrogen mag and online article

HYDROGEN is indispensable in refining operations. It is typically used to lower the sulphur content of all kerosene, gasoline, and diesel, and demand is only rising. However, this hydrogen is made via steam methane reformation using natural gas for the feedstock, resulting in high carbon emissions. Utilising sustainably produced green hydrogen could prove to be a critical step towards decarbonising refineries. Launched in January 2018, the five-year pan-European REFHYNE project aims to supply clean, green hydrogen for refineries.

The project reached a key milestone in July 2021 with the opening of the €16m 10MW REFHYNE PEM electrolyser built by ITM Power at the Shell Energy and Chemicals Park in Wesseling, Germany. Using renewable electricity, this electrolyser can produce 1,300 tonnes of green hydrogen a year, making it the largest of its kind in Europe, and the largest of its kind to be deployed on a major scale. The decarbonised hydrogen produced by the electrolyser can be fully integrated into refinery processes including the desulphurisation of conventional fuels.

The hydrogen will be used for processing and upgrading products at the Wesseling site and testing the PEM technology at the largest scale achieved to date. It will also explore applications in other sectors including industry, power generation, heating for buildings, and transport. In October 2021, the REFYHNE II consortium secured €32.4m to develop a 100MW electrolyser at the Shell Energy and Chemicals Park.

Looking for more features on Sustainability?