Research News

Industrial Decarbonization via Hydrogen

September 29, 2021

Hydrogen offers a potential solution to the problem of supporting more sustainable industries, but technical, economic, social, and political factors stand in its way, according to a new paper produced by an international team of experts from a variety of disciplines. 


Using decarbonized hydrogen, so-called green hydrogen, is an avenue to a low-carbon economy that is attracting renewed interest. Technological developments and cost reductions could allow hydrogen to contribute significantly to a decarbonized economy as a fuel and a feedstock. As a fuel, hydrogen offers considerable potential because it generates no carbon dioxide on combustion. As a feedstock, low-carbon hydrogen could replace high-carbon feedstocks in processes such as steel production.


At a critical juncture for the industry and global climate, Dr. Steve Griffiths, SVP Research and Development and Professor of Practice, offers a critical, systematic and interdisciplinary assessment of industrial decarbonization via hydrogen. Dr. Griffiths and his team reviewed more than 2,100 sources of evidence, referencing over 700 papers and studies, using a sociotechnical lens to examine hydrogen production and use across multiple industries. The work on hydrogen is part of a broader set of studies that the team has undertaken with support from the Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) in the United Kingdom.


Team members were Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex, UK; Dr. Jinsoo Kim, Hanyang University, Republic of Korea; Dr. Morgan Bazilian, Colorado School of Mines, USA; and Joao Uratani, a research engineer also from Khalifa University.


Their review was published in Energy Research and Social Science.


“Hydrogen is increasingly being positioned as a key energy vector due to its versatility as a chemical store of energy for use in the power, buildings, transport, and industrial sectors,” Dr. Griffiths said. “More importantly, hydrogen is one of the key options for many decarbonizing industrial sectors, particularly those that require hydrogen as a feedstock for process chemistry.”


Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe but hydrogen atoms do not exist in nature by themselves. To produce hydrogen, its atoms need to be decoupled from other elements in resources like  water, plants or fossil fuels. The method by which hydrogen is produced largely determines its sustainability.


,” Dr. Griffiths said. “Its properties make it an excellent fuel but hydrogen requires considerable care in processing and handling. Further, transporting it long distances in a liquid form is currently very expensive.”


Although the use of hydrogen is somewhat limited in scope today, a very different future may be on the horizon. The industrial processes used to make steel, cement, ceramics, glass and chemicals all require varying amounts of high-temperature heat. For these sectors, hydrogen is one of the very few long-term options for replacing fossil fuels at large scale.


The use of hydrogen in shipping, particularly in the form of ammonia, is the major opportunity here.


However, the main challenge with scaling up the hydrogen-supply chain is to lower the costs of transporting it. The existing technologies for transporting and distributing hydrogen long distances in a volumetrically energy dense liquid form are still significantly more expensive than those of other fuels, such as oil and natural gas. Hydrogen, or one of its derivatives, particularly ammonia, may play a prominent role in such long distance transport. However, pipeline transmission of hydrogen gas is currently the economic means of moving hydrogen at large scale.


Compressed hydrogen could use converted natural-gas pipelines, or newly built ones, or even be co-transported with natural gas to partially decarbonize natural gas already used in the energy sector. A lack of dedicated global hydrogen pipeline networks is, however, a current challenge to be overcome if regional and national hydrogen trade is to be established. Once transported, hydrogen storage becomes the priority, but hydrogen’s low volumetric energy density can make it difficult to store. Fortunately, there appears to be no insurmountable technical barrier to storing hydrogen over the longer term in high capacity geologic formations like aquifers and rock caverns.


The final cost of hydrogen in international trade will depend on what it costs to produce and transport it, Dr. Griffiths said. “Connecting suppliers and consumers at the global level via the most cost-effective means will be a great challenge.”


Such considerations are particularly relevant for connecting global supply and demand. This said, sociopolitical factors could hinder hydrogen’s growing role in industrial decarbonization and so must also be considered.


The review paper considers the social and technical systems involved in making, distributing, and using hydrogen, with the authors accounting for institutional inputs, policy and regulatory frameworks, and financial and economic enablers. There are many socio-technical elements at play:


“Industry decarbonization via hydrogen will require policy mechanisms that stimulate both hydrogen supply and demand and support development of the necessary supply-chain infrastructure,” Dr. Griffiths said. “While policy toolkits can be built upon existing efforts targeting renewable-energy generation and use, specific hydrogen-targeted policy instruments will be needed.”



Further, policies can spur innovation, and dedicated funds will be required to support research and development in academia and industry.


In this context, dedicated hydrogen-research centers are appearing, and public-private partnerships for the demonstration and scale up of hydrogen technologies and projects can be found around the world. Regulatory and certification frameworks are emerging that cover the production, supply-chain and industrial-use elements of hydrogen at the national level. Internationally, seventeen standards had been published and fifteen more were under development at the time the paper was written. These standards cover most elements of the technical pathways for hydrogen production and use.


However, the degree to which countries have been able to implement regulation varies. National and regional regulatory bodies will need to adopt harmonized policy instruments to avoid being excluded from accessing international hydrogen markets. Additionally, the regulatory frameworks on safety and quality control will need to be particularly robust.


“The absence of comprehensive, national and international policy and regulatory frameworks for hydrogen adoption, particularly for  industrial systems, is a major challenge,” Dr. Griffiths said. “Despite increasing interest in hydrogen, policy support in the form of roadmaps, action and strategic plans is still not fully implemented on a global level.”


The future of hydrogen trade relationships will also rely heavily on geopolitics. The role that renewable hydrogen could play on the energy geopolitics stage remains to be seen. Particularly as transport costs are reduced, the importance of where resources are found will be reduced. Contrasting this to the geopolitical clout afforded to countries located on top of robust oil reserves suggests how global geopolitical dynamics could be affected.


“Whether countries will adopt particular roles in a hydrogen-economy transition is likely to depend on existing resources and infrastructure,” Dr. Griffiths said. “Some countries are more likely than others to lead the global markets in production capacity and export heavily, while others will focus on importation to meet demand. Countries that are more likely to import are already net energy importers under the current fossil-energy paradigm.” Industrial adoption of low-carbon hydrogen still faces a significant number of barriers. Regulatory and standardization instruments are perhaps the key means of driving rapid hydrogen utilization, according to the study authors, but support for R&D is also critical.


“Decarbonizing hydrogen is key to decarbonizing the chemical and refining industries, but it will also help decarbonize a number of other industries,” Dr. Griffiths said.


Applying decarbonized hydrogen across a wide range of sectors could benefit a large number of companies and economies. Of these, perhaps the most significant are the oil and gas firms that are increasingly facing calls to halt fossil-fuel production. As these companies look to diversify their portfolios, green hydrogen or hydrogen produced from fossil sources coupled with carbon capture, could be critical. Cutting the costs to achieve global industrial adoption of low-carbon hydrogen will require massive investment and scale, which oil majors could provide.


The authors noted that moving forward, the most ambitious targets for hydrogen use will require additional study, ranging from R&D to market stimulation, with further consideration of potential geopolitical ramifications and also further consideration of opportunities and challenges for hydrogen adoption in developing countries.


Most articles about hydrogen involve engineering and the natural sciences with social sciences representing a small fraction of total papers published. This suggests there is a lot of room to study in more detail the sociotechnical aspects of hydrogen use.


Jade Sterling
Science Writer
29 September 2021