IT has been talked about for decades. But finally, a hydrogen-fuelled economy is no longer seen as just a lot of hot air. Already, some buses in the UK, Germany, France and other countries run on hydrogen.
The big advantage of hydrogen is that when it is used as a fuel, it produces only water. No CO2 and no potentially harmful emissions are produced. This makes hydrogen vehicles much better for air quality in urban areas.
And the chemical industry, far from being sidelined in the development of a hydrogen economy, is very much involved.
“We have a huge contribution to make,” said Pete Williams, INEOS Group Technology Director. “But it cannot be done overnight. It’s not like changing a lightbulb.”
Today INEOS produces 250,000 tonnes of hydrogen a year. It is a co-product from producing chlorine and cracking gas and oil to make olefins and polymers.
The hydrogen is used in a number of ways: to remove the sulphur from crude oil, as a raw material for other chemical processes, or as a fuel in its plants.
INOVYN, a wholly owned subsidiary of INEOS, had previously used most of it to supply on-site boilers.
But the company is now looking at how that hydrogen could be more widely used to help eliminate harmful air quality pollutants from towns and cities – and power homes and businesses.
Today, about 95% of the world’s hydrogen is made from methane gas.
“That’s why at INEOS we have often talked about methane as being a transition fuel,” said Pete. “Not only is it lower carbon and cleaner than the coal and oil it is displacing, but it also provides the bridge to a hydrogen economy until renewable energy becomes much more widespread.”
Shale gas could be converted to green hydrogen in the same way as other natural gas supplies. The key would be to capture the carbon – produced in the process - and store it underground.
It is also one of the reasons why INEOS wants to develop an indigenous source of gas from shale rocks for the UK.
“The majority of the UK’s natural gas comes from Norway and Russia via a European pipeline or is imported as liquid natural gas, including US shale gas,” said Pete. “Home-grown gas would increase Britain’s energy security and provide a bridge towards the emission targets that the UK has set for 2050.”
Once made, the hydrogen could be stored underground in the same way natural gas is stored today.
For decades INOVYN has used salt cavities in Cheshire in the UK to store hydrocarbons and recently received government funding to continue with a feasibility study (Project Centurion) to look at new hydrogen generation and storage options, including a potential plan to build a 100MW power-to-gas energy storage facilities at Runcorn.
“Storage is a vital component of delivering a viable hydrogen energy system in the UK,” said Dr Frank Rourke, UK Country Manager of INOVYN. “We have the opportunity to develop a critical piece of national energy infrastructure at a huge cost reduction compared to above ground storage. Bespoke salt cavities could be created as part of our green economy.”
Richard Stevenson, INOVYN’s Storage Projects Manager, said INOVYN was ideally placed to drive innovation in the sector.
“Hydrogen production, supply and use has been happening in the North West of England for many years,” he said.
INOVYN is now working closely with other members of the North West Hydrogen Alliance to make it happen.
“Hydrogen energy could be transformational for the North West and INOVYN is delighted to be working alongside other alliance members to drive this forward,” he said.
Project Centurion will explore how energy storage can produce low carbon hydrogen for heat, decarbonisation of industry and transport fuels as well as contributing towards energy security.
“INOVYN is at the forefront of hydrogen innovation in the region and their knowledge, expertise and influence will be a real asset to our work,” said Professor Joseph Howe, Chairman of the North West Hydrogen Alliance.
If hydrogen becomes more available, then it can also become a viable and sustainable green fuel for homes and businesses.
In the UK, gas networks are connected to more than 20 million homes, providing gas for heating and cooking.
National Grid’s network could be used to feed hydrogen into homes.
Pete is excited at what the future holds but says tests and investment in infrastructure are urgently needed.
It’s not that it cannot be done. It’s making sure it can be done economically. If it cannot, it’s unsustainable. If it can, it’s a game-changer.
INEOS’ new 4 x 4 – or at least one of the models – could be run on hydrogen.
The team behind Projekt Grenadier have been given a £124,000 UK government grant to evaluate the use of hydrogen fuel cells, which, like batteries, generate electricity that can drive the motor.
More and more hydrogen-powered vehicles are being rolled out around the world
- Zero emission fuel cell bus, United Kingdom
- Alstom hydrogen train, Thuringia
- Auto hydrogen fuel fill-up, Los Angeles
- The Toyota Motor Corp. hydrogen fuel cell powered truck
- Electric hydrogen bicycle, France
- Hydrogen powered forklift