Hydrogen leakage threatens the decarbonization of the chemical industry, but that’s no reason to abandon efforts to make the switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen.
The chemical industry needs hydrogen in order to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, an important move for two reasons:
- To remain economically viable in the long term
- To move closer to the goal of carbon neutrality
The Many Pros (and a Few Cons) of Using Hydrogen
Of all the alternative fuels, hydrogen is best positioned to take over hydrocarbons both as a source of energy and as a feedstock in the production of chemicals. When hydrogen is the fuel, the only byproduct is water (after all, hydrogen means “water-former”), unlike the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are emitted as the result of combusting oil or gas. Green hydrogen is an even more ecological solution, as it is produced via electrolysis using renewable energy sources like wind, sunlight, and tides. For these reasons, an increasing number of experts in chemical production see H2 as a beacon of hope for decarbonizing an industry that many thought was forever dependent on petroleum.
Governments around the world are also taking note of this potential. As of June 2022, the United States, Germany, and other economic powerhouses have released more than 30 strategies to strengthen initiatives around the production, use, and distribution of hydrogen. These global developments point to a clear trend: the importance and, thus, consumption of hydrogen will increase significantly in the near future. Energy analysts at PwC, for example, expect the volume to increase seven-fold by 2050.
However, hydrogen is not without climate hazards. While H2 is not a greenhouse gas per se, it does extend the lifetime of atmospheric methane, which is a GHG, by reacting with the hydroxyl radicals (OH) that destroy those organic molecules. Fewer hydroxyl radicals means methane remain longer in the atmosphere. Hydrogen also increases the concentration of water vapor, which stores energy and causes the planet to heat up even more. Thus, fugitive hydrogen emissions will erase or even reverse any advances toward carbon neutrality.
To prevent fugitive H2 emissions, it is essential to have a comprehensive, needs-based infrastructure throughout the hydrogen value chain, as well as strict and continuous controls in the areas of chemical production, storage, and transport. Measurement technology can make an enormous difference in minimizing hydrogen leaks and helping the industry move toward greater sustainability, both environmentally and economically.
Net Zero in the Chemical Industry: Goals and Hurdles
As outlined by global policymakers and industry leaders, the purpose of increased hydrogen use is clear: net zero. The ultimate goal is complete climate neutrality in all areas and practices. As the world’s largest economy and the second largest emitter (after China), the United States announced a goal of halving the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. The US private sector plays a major role in this bold move and have made their own pledges to meet these goals by or even before 2030 and 2050.
For this plan to succeed, the chemical sector will have to make a significant contribution. After all, chemical production is one of the main sources of industrial emissions, and even the production of much-needed hydrogen resulted in about 900 megatons of CO2 worldwide in 2020. Three realities stand in the way of decarbonizing the chemical industry:
- Current dependence on petroleum-based feedstock
- The negative CO2 balance of individual products
- The high energy demands of many chemical processes
These are not insurmountable obstacles, though. In fact, the industry is making steady progress toward overcoming them. For example, it is possible to switch to renewable energies for core processes in ammonia and methanol production. This includes the use of green hydrogen as a substitute for methane steam reforming.
In theory, the industry can solve the issues that line the road toward climate neutrality. In practice, implementing these solutions take resolve – and more than a few dollars. An Accenture report estimates that the global chemical sector will have to increase its investments by more than $12 billion per year over the next three decades. The upside is an increasingly smaller carbon footprint and more growth opportunities.
In short, the decarbonization of this industry is crucial and challenging – but doable. The effort will require significant public- and private-sector investment as the parties work together to build the necessary hydrogen infrastructure to move toward a net-zero future.
Requirements for the Hydrogen Infrastructure: Now and in the Future
Energy analysts expect the consumption of hydrogen to increase seven-fold in the long term, but the current hydrogen infrastructure cannot meet this demand. To ensure that the chemical industry has reliable, safe, and climate-friendly hydrogen in the future, now is the time to create and expand the necessary infrastructure.
Governmental Action, Local and Global
There is already movement on this front in the United States. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law in November 2021, includes $8 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE) for clean hydrogen hubs (H2Hubs) across the country. Applications for $7 billion of that funding opened in September 2022. The DOE National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap outlines three strategies for using hydrogen as a decarbonization tool:
- Targeting strategic, high-impact uses for clean hydrogen
- Reducing the cost of clean hydrogen
- Focusing on regional networks
This plan, among other actions, provides a strategic framework for researching, developing, and promoting the transport and storage of hydrogen in various parts of the economy. The subsequent Inflation Reduction Act of August 2022 includes a tax credit for producers of clean hydrogen.
Of course, the US is not alone in promoting a clean hydrogen economy. The German government, for example, is funding 62 hydrogen initiatives under the EU’s “Important Projects of Common European Interest” (IPCEI) program, which has hydrogen distribution as a focus. A total of €8 billion has been earmarked for selected major hydrogen projects in which the steel and chemical industries play a major role.
Infrastructure Challenges for the Chemical Industry
Policymakers have acted – and will continue to do so – to enable the distribution and storage of hydrogen in the volumes that will be needed in the future. It is also important to create a reliable and future-oriented legal framework that makes infrastructure expansion economically attractive.
The chemical industry also has a task: to build a network of dedicated hydrogen pipelines to transport the gas. Existing natural gas pipelines are simply not durable enough to distribute hydrogen. When molecular hydrogen breaks down into atomic hydrogen, the ions enter the lattice structure of metals (hydrogen permeation), making them susceptible to embrittlement. Metals that absorb hydrogen are prone to cracking.
Furthermore, while H2 mixed with CH4 can be used as a fuel, the chemical industry requires high-purity hydrogen if the gas is to be used as feedstock.
As an alternative to the resource-intensive development of a nationwide H2 infrastructure, some have proposed that chemical plants near rivers, lakes, and oceans produce hydrogen onsite using electrolysis. This, however, is not a true solution to the problem of leakage, as one of the advantages of hydrogen is that it can be stored much longer than electricity, which means those tanks and vessels are prone to hydrogen embrittlement as well. Consequently, preventing leakage is a top priority in any H2 effort.
The next article in this series is “The Dangers of Hydrogen Leaks and How to Minimize the Risks.”