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What makes hydrogen green?

The story of hydrogen actually goes back hundreds of years. Discovered by English chemist Henry Cavendish in 1766 and used for industrial purposes for more than a century, this energy-packed gas has a key role to play in our transport methods of the future. The fact that it can also help to reduce CO2 emissions in industry – and probably at greater speed – is more relevant now than ever.

Hydrogen’s appeal is practically unparalleled: of all available energy sources, hydrogen has the highest energy content per kilogram, it doesn’t spontaneously combust, it’s not poisonous, and the only thing to come out of the exhaust of cars, buses or trucks powered by hydrogen is water vapor. 

Hydrogen has also long been embraced by industry. Millions of tons a year are used in refineries worldwide in order to produce sulfur-free diesel and gasoline. In petrochemical plants, the key characteristics of plastics are determined with the aid of hydrogen. Overall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 70 megatons of hydrogen are produced every year, noting that the “time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future” (“The Future of Hydrogen” report, 2019, IEA).

Opportunities in “green” hydrogen

Fundamentally there are two ways to produce hydrogen (H2), as Michael-Dieter Ulbrich, Senior Advisor in the Business Transformation unit at OMV, knows only too well. “Nowadays we differentiate between hydrogen produced in the traditional manner from hydrocarbons such as natural gas, and renewable “green” hydrogen. This is mainly produced using electrolysis in a method that splits it from water by means of sustainably produced power such as wind power or photovoltaic energy”. The latter method accounts for a mere 2% of the hydrogen produced worldwide according to the IEA. “Low-carbon, sustainable production of H2 can play a major role in the new energy era”, says Michael-Dieter. 

I am convinced that hydrogen with a lower CO2 or CO2-neutral footprint can play a key role in the decarbonization of energy-intensive industrial manufacturing and transport. The approach that eventually holds the key to success will not be tied to any single technology and will be focused on preventing CO2 emissions.

Reducing CO2 is feasible in hydrogen production

But what’s actually green about it, this hydrogen? The traditional method used to produce H2 involves steam reforming, whereby the carbon contained in the hydrocarbons is converted into CO2, a process that leads to CO2 emissions (around 10 kg CO2 for each kg H2). It is possible to reduce the CO2 footprint when producing hydrogen even further and Michael-Dieter has a few more technologies to add to the mix alongside electrolysis:

For example, there are ways to prevent the CO2 created in the steam-reforming process from being expelled as emissions and instead separating it and subjecting it to further chemical processing, e.g. to be used to produce alcohols that are then turned into fuel. Another highly promising alternative is splitting natural gas into hydrogen and coke with what’s known as the pyrolysis method. “This method is still in the development phase; nevertheless, it has been proven to use far less energy, especially when compared to electrolysis with water”, says Ulbrich. In addition to green hydrogen, the CO2-neutral or lower-carbon hydrogen from these two methods could be an important building block in meeting our targets on CO2 reduction.

Hydrogen as a model for the entire value chain

Michael-Dieter Ulbrich and his colleagues at OMV are working on addressing all of these issues. The goal? To advance and optimize the entire energy value chain with sustainable hydrogen in practice. This starts with a green power source, continues by applying electrolysis, using green H2 in the refinery, and then supplying hydrogen filling stations to serve commercial bus lines. One partner that’s on board is Verbund, with whom OMV in cooperation with WIVA P&G is working to shape our energy future.

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