Decarbonizing Industry with Hydrogen

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on May 14, 2019
Vicky Harris
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Thriving with Hydrogen Series: Part 2

Last October in his blog, Bill Gates challenged the world to address the deeper issues around carbon emissions. He noted that tackling the problem through renewable energy and electric cars will, at best, only speak to 25% of the global warming problem we face. (See the article we wrote on this topic here). Solving for the other 75%, which may be less visible to the everyday person, requires technological breakthroughs and new approaches. When it comes to reducing emissions, some areas of our economy are simply harder to abate using intermittent solar and wind or electrification.

Fortunately, hydrogen is recognized globally as having the flexibility and scalability needed to fill these gaps. Whether serving as a fuel for end-use applications, process feedstock, or energy carrier, hydrogen is a 24/7 solution that can scale across a multitude of sectors. It is a workhorse that can decarbonize heavy industry’s high-heat processes (such as iron and steel, plastics, and chemicals production) and supply industrial transportation (such as long-haul trucking, industrial shipping, and commercial aviation) with the high energy-dense fuel needed to move heavy payloads over long distances.

Today’s post, the second in our “Thriving with Hydrogen Series” (check out Part 1 here), explores why it’s daunting to reduce carbon emissions in some areas of our economy and how hydrogen can transition the hard-to-electrify industrial sector to more sustainable operations.

Teamwork to tackle carbon emissions: Clean hydrogen can take us where clean electricity can’t.

A Different Approach to Decarbonization is Needed

A recent article by The Chemical Engineer provides perspective on the complexity of decarbonizing heat and transport and points to the need for a different approach to achieve this goal than the path taken for electricity. In their words:

“Extending the current decarbonization approach of electrification across all energy sectors would be, at a minimum, myopic and certainly unfeasible. Although wind and solar power have been transformative to date in decarbonizing electricity, extending that logic to the other energy vectors of gas and oil (heating and transport) does not stack up when taking a system approach.”

The article dives into some of the reasons why the same decarbonization approach would not generate the necessary reductions to make an impact. These include the fact that heating, which mostly uses natural gas, accounts for the same, or more, share of carbon emissions than electricity (depending upon country). Thus, a direct replacement of natural gas by a similar, but cleaner fuel, is required. Also, industrial transportation requires innovations that are not yet on the horizon for batteries to achieve high utilization, long range, and heavy payloads required to move cargo around the world.

A 2017 report by the Hydrogen Council highlights the need for a different approach to decarbonize heat and heavy transport than the path taken for electricity: “While some applications, such as small cars and low-grade heat, can be readily decarbonized with electricity, others, such as long-range passenger cars, large trucks, planes, and high-grade heat, pose serious challenges.”

“Decarbonization of Industrial Sectors: The Next Frontier”

This is the title of an aptly named report from McKinsey that explores the industrial sector’s footprint in climate change (responsible for 28% of global greenhouse emissions) and the “less well-defined” pathways to decarbonize its activities and processes―which contribute to one-fourth of global GDP and employment. They explain: “Over the last decades, the outlines of energy transition pathways have emerged in the buildings, power and transport sectors. These have been driven by technological breakthroughs and cost reduction. For industrial processes, such pathways are less well-defined.”

Why is it such a challenge to transition the industrial sector to more sustainable operations? There appear to be two primary reasons: high heat and dirty feedstock (the raw ingredients used in various industrial processes). Both of which are responsible for 90% of industry’s CO2 emissions. The International Energy Association (IEA) indicates that “three-quarters of the energy used in industry is process heat,” and of this, “48% is high-temperature heat above 400° C.” Burning fuel to produce high-temperature heat is required to operate equipment such as boilers, steam generators, and furnaces used in various industrial processes. Because of the high temperatures required, McKinsey asserts, “electrification of heat production in industry is only economical when electricity costs the same, per unit of energy, as the conventional fossil fuel alternative.”

In a recent report, the World Energy Council reinforces the fact that “not all industrial processes can be electrified,” and points to the need, “for a carbon-neutral energy carrier to fully decarbonize industrial production.” They call hydrogen “simply one of the very few substances that can be used for this purpose.”

Green Hydrogen in Industry

An article by Gasworld emphasizes the idea of industry as “the next frontier for hydrogen,” based on a new report by Lux Research. The article quotes Lux analyst and report author Runeel Daliah as saying that most of the innovation in fuel cells, “the ‘engine’ in a hydrogen economy, has largely been driven by automakers and OEMs.” He notes, however, that hydrogen is “first and foremost, an essential feedstock for the refining and chemicals industry. Therefore, it stands to reason that the industrial sector, not the transportation sector, should be the bedrock for hydrogen technology innovation.”

Green hydrogen carries many unique advantages as a fuel for industry, which according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) include: “providing high-grade heat; addressing a range of energy needs that direct electrification cannot meet; and replacing fossil fuel-based feedstocks, such as natural gas, in high-emission applications of the industry sector.” The Hydrogen Council highlights several uses for hydrogen to support industry’s decarbonization efforts: “notably in chemicals and petrochemicals (where by-product hydrogen is also produced and could be used to retrofit equipment such as ethylene crackers), in aluminum recycling (where gas-fired furnaces could be retrofitted to run on hydrogen), in cement production (where hydrogen could be combined with waste-derived fuels), and in the pulp and paper industry (where hydrogen could provide the high-purity flame needed to flash-dry paper).”

One recent example is an initiative by German steelmaker ArcelorMittal in a world-first for the steel industry. FuelCellsWorks recently reported on the company’s plans to “launch a new project in the ArcelorMittal plant in Hamburg to use hydrogen on an industrial scale for the direct reduction of iron ore in the steel production process for the first time.” This is a pilot where the company intends to test the widespread adoption of hydrogen in their industrial process “to produce steel with the lowest CO2 emissions.”

Tough-to-Achieve Decarbonization Underway

As Bill Gates pointed out, to get to a sustainable society, reducing carbon emissions needs to extend well beyond electricity. Industry and heavy transportation require a different form of energy than what electricity can easily provide to other sectors. Fortunately, industry visionaries and early adopters are starting to experiment with hydrogen, which shares many valued characteristics as the fossil fuels it may one day replace. The road ahead is long, but we’re already traveling it.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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