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  1. Spotlight
26 November 2020updated 16 Sep 2021 4:49pm

A bright future for hydrogen

The UK could be a leader in clean hydrogen technology, say Eugene McKenna  and Andy Walker from Johnson Matthey

By Spotlight

What is hydrogen and how exactly is it a low-carbon energy source?     

Eugene McKenna: What do you want from an energy source? Well, you want high energy density and you want something you can put into your car and transport easily. In that sense, petrol is a great fuel. The problem is carbon dioxide and other pollutants are emitted from the exhaust when used, which massively contributes to global warming. With clean hydrogen, that does not happen.

There are a couple of types of clean hydrogen or “colours”. Green hydrogen is produced by the electrolysis of water, with the electricity used coming from renewable sources. Blue hydrogen is generated from natural gas. Although carbon dioxide is produced in the process, it is captured and safely stored in geological features. In the North Sea, you can put carbon dioxide back into the same geological structures that oil and gas have come from for five decades, and it will stay there permanently. Clean hydrogen is going to be essential when it comes to meeting the UK’s zero-carbon commitments, and Johnson Matthey is really leading the way.

Blue hydrogen currently is more “ready to go” because you can use a lot of the current energy infrastructure. That is why there are already some projects up and running in the UK to demonstrate the technology. For instance, at the Stanlow Refinery in the north west of England, natural gas will arrive at the site, blue hydrogen will be made, then the carbon dioxide will be removed and it will produce large amounts of hydrogen to be used in local industry, put into the grid and distributed to houses. This project, which is in the first phase, will eventually produce the same amount of clean energy as the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and is all done using our technology.

What opportunities does hydrogen present for the UK?

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EM: The first industrial revolution was driven by technological innovation here in the UK. But it was fuelled by coal. We are now on the cusp of a similar transformation in technology that is going to be far greener than the first, but it, too, can put Britain at its centre. We have the leading technology in clean hydrogen production and that is something that is going to take off around the world for use in homes and in formerly carbon-intensive industries. There is an opportunity for the UK to become a centre of excellence and this will have a huge impact on people at the local level.

Right now, Johnson Matthey is deploying hydrogen technology in the north west, with the HyNet facility near Chester, we are involved with the Acorn project up in Scotland, and there are projects in the pipeline for the Humber, all for hydrogen energy and carbon capture, usage and storage. So what we are doing is very much in line with the levelling up strategy. We are creating highly skilled, high-productivity jobs in areas that need them most. Those jobs are simultaneously contributing to the UK’s net zero carbon ambitions. We are also developing technology for making green hydrogen, drawing on our technical and market expertise to improve the performance and the economics for our customers.

What can hydrogen be used for?

EM: Clean hydrogen can be used in different ways. We will be able to heat our houses and cook our food guilt-free because with hydrogen technology we will no longer be contributing to global emissions in the same way. It has been shown that a blend of 20 per cent hydrogen in natural gas requires no change to domestic appliances.

But hydrogen also presents huge opportunities for uses in non-domestic settings, in energy-intensive sectors where switching immediately to renewable electricity simply is not possible. In the manufacture of steel, glass or cement, for example, where a huge amount of natural gas is burnt in the production process. If hydrogen were used instead, we would not see that massive carbon impact.

Andy Walker: Hydrogen is incredibly flexible. It enables us to decarbonise sectors that are difficult to electrify. Eugene has mentioned heavy industry, but there are also trains and heavy lorries, where batteries are too large, expensive and need recharging too often. You can replace the engine or battery with a fuel cell which runs off hydrogen. The first trials of hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains are starting in the UK, which means rail lines that currently run on diesel could switch over to a clean fuel faster, and cheaper, than through electrification. There are hydrogen fuel cell buses on our roads already, so the technology is ready.

We also see opportunities in aviation, where instead of using the kerosene, you can make similar fuels in a sustainable way, using a synthesis of hydrogen and municipal solid waste or rubbish. This kind of fuel can be used with the same planes we use today, but with a much lower carbon footprint.

What are the wider benefits of using hydrogen?

AW: Hydrogen can become the fuel of choice as part of the next wave of technological innovation. That, in turn, will lead to sustainable, clean growth that will help us meet net zero carbon obligations as a country and secure a cleaner, healthier future. That will also provide opportunities for levelling up, with jobs and productivity gains across all regions of the UK. Hydrogen is going to be front and centre in a clean energy transition that is both socially fair, and that does not have to sacrifice the economic viability of UK plc.

What would a future hydrogen world look like?

AW: The picture I would paint is of clean hydrogen fuelling the delivery trucks that come to our door, the bus we travel on, maybe even the long-haul flight we take, or the train. It is going to be in a lot of houses, keeping us warm and heating our food. In many ways, it will replace natural gas in industrial processes, too.

But for that to become a reality, there needs to be consistent and far-reaching policy so people can invest with confidence. There needs to be assistance in the same way there are grants available for electric vehicle charging stations and investment models for offshore wind. With incentives, with tax breaks and infrastructure support, clean hydrogen can start to take off. These will then become more attractive than carbon-intensive fuels.

In the aftermath of coronavirus, the UK now has the opportunity to – and must – build back better. That means building back in a fair and socially just way, which hydrogen can really facilitate. But that will require a joined-up strategy that takes in all the affected sectors and links them holistically. Hydrogen will undoubtedly play a key part in the growth industries of the future and in future energy provision. The UK can lead that future, and Johnson Matthey is ready to be a part of it.