Scaling up low carbon hydrogen is essential to the decarbonisation of industry

Bruno Roche, global head of energy transition at ABB Energy Industries, explains why the pursuit of making low carbon hydrogen more cost effective is critical to enabling industry, transportation and energy suppliers to reduce emissions in line with what the world requires.

// Global head of energy transition at ABB Energy Industries, Bruno Roche Credit: ABB Energy Industries

If the primary ambition of the Paris Accords to reach net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is to be achieved, and the consequences of climate change to be averted, then it is almost certain that hydrogen will have a critical part to play.

Produced through the process of electrolysis, where an electrical charge is used to split water back into its constituent elements of oxygen and hydrogen, it offers unparalleled potential to drive decarbonisation on many of the most challenging fronts. This is because the sole by-product created through the electrolysis phase is oxygen, rather than any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions.

This emission-free process of electrolysis makes hydrogen an ideal candidate to displace fossil fuel led emissions that have been intrinsically associated with economic growth since the dawn of the industrial revolution. However, it has also been held back by the lack of accessible and affordable alternatives to fossil fuel sources of energy.

Until relatively recently, the production of hydrogen for commercial or industrial usage has almost exclusively relied on either the burning of natural gas – in the case of blue hydrogen – or coal and lignite – in the case of brown or black hydrogen – to power its electrolysis.

The growth of low carbon hydrogen

While sustainable and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have increased in both abundance and affordability, the means and need to replace higher carbon hydrogen with a cleaner, greener alternative have accelerated. This pursuit of low carbon hydrogen, where the process of electrolysis is powered entirely by renewables, is forecasted by Morgan Stanley to drive the hydrogen market forward from a value of $150bn in 2020, to an estimated $600bn by 2050.

More significant than its rise in fortunes, is the shift in demand that will fuel that growth. This will see it transform from a market where virtually all of it is sold as a greenhouse gas emission enabler as of 2020, into a driver of decarbonisation across industries, with the power generation, industrial processes, and transport sectors accounting for 71% of all carbon dioxide emissions. These are, according to the latest IPCC report, expected to be the main areas of demand.

Low carbon hydrogen holds transformative potential for hard-to-abate industries, such as petroleum refining, methanol production and the steel industry. Its use as a feedstock in place of coal – for instance within a direct reduced iron furnace – could almost completely remove the 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide that are produced on average for every ton of steel produced.

Similarly, significant steps forward can be taken within the transportation sector, where the continued development of hydrogen fuel cell technologies is essential to help the global shipping and maritime industry achieve its ambition of halving its emissions by 2050. As costs come down, and the required refuelling infrastructure is put in place, hydrogen is also forecast to become increasingly commonplace within the automotive sector in heavy transport uses as a complement to electric vehicles for automobile transport.

ABB is already working closely with Plug Power in this area, on the development of two green hydrogen plants in North America that are, when complete, set to produce 60 tons per day to displace some 170 tons of fossil fuels in the logistics and transportation sector. This will enable users to replace fossil fuels in on-road applications such as heavy-duty freight vehicles and forklifts.

Driving development forward through investment and collaboration

For the true potential of low carbon hydrogen to be realised, a huge amount of investment, innovation and collaboration across industries and technologies is required.

ABB is complementing our partners’ expertise with our integrated automation, electrification and digital solutions, working relentlessly to drive down the cost of green hydrogen production to enable a thriving hydrogen economy and make hydrogen a key part of our world’s low and no carbon future.

Technology has a major role to play here. For example, digital transformation enables greater efficiencies overall and specifically critical operational expenditure reductions. Digitalisation also enables lower emissions through tighter controls and more data insights that empower more informed decision-making, in turn driving sustainability goals.

ABB is also working on a number of ambitious projects that we believe will put us firmly on the path to rapid decarbonisation. In partnership with IBM and Worley, we are combining our expertise into a distinct ecosystem of industry leaders to create a first of its kind, end-to-end repeatable solution – green hydrogen in a box – to build, standardise, fast-track and level the costs of production facilities.

In Italy, we are working with the Swiss utilities provider Axpo to co-develop modular green hydrogen production plants, in order to understand and advance the optimum operating model for affordable and accessible production. While in Sweden, we are working on the HYBRIT initiative, that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions within the steelmaking process by replacing coal with hydrogen in order to take emission-free steel a major step closer to reality.

Our goal in each of these projects, and as a company overall, is to help make low carbon hydrogen accessible as quickly and cost-effectively as possible to meet its growing demand. Only then can it play a crucial role in decarbonisation. Through ground-breaking technology and constant innovation, we believe that low carbon hydrogen has the potential to make a world of difference in driving a no carbon, clean energy world for future generations to come.

// Main image: Hydrogen production. Credit: Scharfsinn via Shutterstock