Hydrogen has potential to become universal energy carrier

20th September 2019

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor


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As a clean and sustainable energy carrier, which produces no emissions except water, hydrogen has the potential to become a universal energy carrier, in the same way that oil is now, but without the environmental impact.

However, conventional forms of hydrogen transportation are problematic, given the fact that they present significant safety hazards and are expensive.

To overcome these problems, liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) technology has been developed, which makes it possible for hydrogen to be handled in the same way as oil, using conventional oil tankers, rail and road tankers for transport and underground tanks for storage.

This lowers the costs and provides the same high flexibility supply chain on existing fossil fuel infrastructure, with a single oil tanker able to fuel 140 buses for more than two years.

The technology of Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is based on commercially available heat transfer oils and large systems that are currently under development.

The first commercial systems have been commissioned in the US by United Hydrogen, where Hydrogenious uses photovoltaic electricity to produce renewable hydrogen stored in LOHC for hydrogen refuelling station applications.

Using fossil fuel underground storage tanks results in tremendous reduction of hydrogen bulk storage of up to 60% at hydrogen refuelling stations.

Markets for onboard LOHC applications include cars, taxis, light commercial vehicles, buses, trucks, trains ships and planes.

“In my eyes, hydrogen’s most important contribution to a future energy system will be that it makes renewable energy transportable and tradable on a global scale,” said Hydrogenious founder and CEO Dr Daniel Teichmann in response to questions put to him by Mining Weekly for this fuel cells feature.

Because hydrogen is being earmarked to one day replace oil in a world anxious to mitigate climate change – the planet’s most pressing problem – hydrogen is experiencing an unprecedented upswing. Very strong global enterprises are supportive of it. Major countries are expanding their hydrogen subsidies and production.

At the same time, South Africa is being widely recognised as being ideally positioned to produce clean, ‘green’ energy because of its superior sunshine, prime wind, available land and platinum abundance.

“But there is still a lot of work to be done. We need the political will to make the hydrogen economy a success story.

“We need government funding for research and development and for industrial-scale projects that demonstrate the technical as well as commercial feasibility of hydrogen use.

“In addition, the industry worldwide has to contribute its fair share and make an even stronger commitment to hydrogen,” Teichmann stated in a written response.

Platinum-group metals (PGMs) can be used across the spectrum.

‘Green’ hydrogen is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in electrolysers that use PGM catalysts; LOHC requires PGMs for its hydrogenation and dehydrogenation processes; and fuel cells require PGMs to generate electricity.

So far, non-precious-metal catalysts have proven less efficient, with the prospect of PGM thrifting likely to nudge PGMs ahead progressively.

Presenting unique PGM beneficiation opportunities is South Africa’s prominent global position as a location that is particularly well suited to the generation of the cheapest renewable energy for the production of hydrogen.

The fuel cell deployment projected by the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO-level energy initiative with members including Toyota, Daimler, Linde and Anglo American, shows hydrogen providing power generation, transportation and heat across a broad spectrum of business that extends to heavy industry.

Growing private-sector support is reflected in the membership of the two-year-old Hydrogen Council rocketing from 13 in 2017 to more than 60 companies now.

Public-sector support is also growing, particularly in China, Japan, South Korea, Europe and California in the US, as low-carbon hydrogen fuel cell technology replaces existing technologies with higher carbon emissions.

The South African government’s grasp of the hydrogen nettle is evidenced by valuable research and development strides that have been taken by Hydrogen South Africa (HySA), a creation of the Department of Science and Innovation.

For some time, HySA has been developing local skills for the hydrogen economy, while the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition has been creating special economic zones where local manufacture is being incentivised. The State-owned Industrial Development Corporation has also been playing a supporting role and the Public Investment Corporation has matched the R1.3-billion investment of Anglo American Platinum in AP Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in the hydrogen value chain, fuel cell electric mobility and energy storage markets.

As hydrogen does not aggregate in pure form, it has to be produced from natural gas, coal or water, and its mitigation of climate change therefore depends on the carbon content of the energy required to produce it.

The ideal is to produce hydrogen with zero greenhouse impediments, which is why electrolyser processing, powered by solar or wind energy and catalysed by platinum, is putting its hand up as the only carbonless, ‘green’ hydrogen producer.

“Fuel cells and the hydrogen economy pose an attractive long-term opportunity for future platinum and PGM demand,” Minerals Council South Africa states in its national platinum strategy document.

These are Teichmann’s replies to Mining Weekly questions:

How is the carbonisation of hydrogen meant to be prevented or minimised?

While hydrogen is, currently, primarily produced from methane or other fossil sources, hydrogen will play an important role in the efforts to decarbonise our global energy system as it can be cleanly produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical process called water electrolysis.

As long as the energy required comes from renewable sources, this process is completely free of carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is a chemical energy carrier with a very high storage density. It is particularly well suited to make use of the best and cheapest sources of renewable energy globally as well as to ensure that renewable energy is transportable and tradable for a future global energy system connected to consumers in all energy sectors.

PGMs are an important component for many technologies in the fields related to the production, storage or usage of hydrogen. For example, electrolysers and fuel cells require platinum for the electrochemical process of water splitting and hydrogen/oxygen recombination respectively. There are also developments for precious metal-free catalysts, however, these are less efficient to date. The processes of storage and release of hydrogen from LOHC also require PGMs.

What is the ideal way of producing hydrogen?

From a climate perspective, no fossil sources should be used for the generation of hydrogen. The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is from water electrolysis.

A further, interesting source is by-product hydrogen from existing chemical processes, such as the chlorine production process. Vast amounts of by-product hydrogen are not used today and therefore offer a very attractive low-cost and clean source in the short- to medium-term.

In the long term, however, only large renewable sources like on- and off-shore wind farms or large photovoltaic parks can generate the amounts of hydrogen needed to decarbonise the mobility, industry and heating sectors efficiently. I am convinced that we will see global transport and trading of green hydrogen becoming an important backbone of our future energy system, just like oil was for so many decades.

When one recalls the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, how can hydrogen’s safe use be enhanced?

Of course, safety is a highly important, if not the most important, topic when dealing with any kind of fuel, be it liquid or gaseous. In fact today, hydrogen storage and processes are regulated by very high safety standards and procedures and all stakeholders prioritise safety.

One should also not forget that gasoline fuel is a highly flammable, highly toxic and carcinogenic substance, and its usage would never be allowed today, were it not for its long history. Nevertheless, it is true that the handling of very large amounts of hydrogen comes with certain challenges, especially in long-distance transportation or bulk storage, especially in populated areas. It is because of this that we at Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies developed our LOHC solution. This technology enables hydrogen storage in the conventional infrastructure at ambient conditions, where it is chemically bonded to a non-hazardous and hardly flammable heat transfer oil.

What is LOHC all about and how is it expected to be deployed?

We have developed an efficient and completely safe method for storing and transporting hydrogen – and therefore renewable energy – by chemically binding the hydrogen molecules to an easy-to-handle oil, through LOHC.

Our carrier oil is used as a thermal oil in industry and is therefore readily available. The fluid we use is non-toxic, hardly flammable and non-explosive and remains in a useable and convenient liquid state through a broad temperature range of –39 ºC to 390 ºC.

This makes it possible to transport the LOHC in the existing global fuel infrastructure. Our technology as such is simple since it is based on a reversible catalytic hydrogenation and then dehydrogenation process. After the release of the hydrogen, the carrier substance can be reused as carrier for several hundred times. With hydrogen being the smallest and the lightest molecule, the efficient storage and transport of hydrogen is the key to connect the upstream and downstream of the complete hydrogen supply chain.

The storage density of hydrogen in our LOHC is up to five times higher than conventional high-pressure storage. A cubic metre of LOHC can carry about 57 kg of hydrogen. As a result, the transport capacities on trucks, trains or ships have increased, thereby significantly reducing total cost for hydrogen supply to the customer.

To enable our vision of a green hydrogen world on a global scale, we have brought strong partners onboard. For the joint construction of large-scale industrial plants, we were able to win over companies such as MAN Energy Solutions and Frames. We also have great strategic partners and investors such as Royal Vopak, Covestro and Mitsubishi Corporation. This means that we are technologically and strategically well positioned to build a global LOHC infrastructure and distribute the LOHC on a global scale.

Is decarbonisation using hydrogen and fuel cells a commercial proposition or will battery electric vehicles always be cheaper?

It definitely is a commercial proposition. For us, it is very clear that we will not see either/or but both, and the technology of choice will very much depend on the application. Fuel cell vehicles have big advantages when it comes to driving distance, refuelling times and net payload. Features, which are typically important in commercial duty application like delivery vans, buses, larger cars or trains, but also in larger passenger cars.

Battery-powered vehicles offer the convenience of recharging at home and are therefore ideal for the small commuter cars. However, at present, much more money has been invested in battery technology than in the development of fuel cell vehicles and their infrastructure. We can therefore expect fuel cell technology to become even cheaper in the future, both through new developments, but also through higher production volumes and widespread use.

In the end, there are so many regions in the world, where renewable energy can be produced at almost no costs. Using hydrogen, these sources can be made available for the consumption in mobility, industry and heating globally.

What is the present state of the hydrogen economy globally and what prospects are there for the building of hydrogen infrastructure to facilitate the production, transport, dispensing and refuelling of hydrogen?

Hydrogen is currently experiencing an unprecedented upswing around the world. Very strong global enterprises are standing behind it. Interest is also growing at the political level.

Germany, Japan and the US are expanding their hydrogen subsidies and production. China has been subsidising the technology more and more for ten years now, and South Korea is also increasingly focusing on hydrogen. Even international organisations such as the International Energy Agency sees hydrogen as the potential for a clean, safe and affordable energy future.

This lays the foundation for a global hydrogen economy. However, these foundations must be expanded and linked. This is where our LOHC technology comes into play. Because it enables the simple and efficient transport of green hydrogen worldwide, without having to build a new infrastructure. For this reason, the LOHC technology in particular offers great opportunities for establishing a hydrogen infrastructure for the production, transport, release and refuelling of hydrogen.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor



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