How hydrogen gets started - an interview with Steve Griffiths

27 Jan 2023
How hydrogen gets started - an interview with Steve Griffiths

Researcher sees industrial clusters as critical, now taking shape 'organically' in the Middle East where steel, cement, refining could see rapid innovations; aviation fuel will follow if investment begins now

Steven Griffiths, PhD is Senior Vice President, Research and Development at Khalifa Univeristy in Abu Dhabi. His research encompasses sociotechnical systems and policy options in energy and technology. He has led research on industrial decarbonization in oil refining, iron and steel, cement and concrete, and other sectors. He recently coauthored “Industrial decarbonization via hydrogen: A critical and systematic review of developments, socio-technical systems and policy options.”

We caught up with him last week at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, where he participated in a Hydrogen Summit ‘Innovation Stocktake’ discussion.

Energy & Utilities  What are the most important current innovations in hydrogen to keep an eye on?

Steve Griffiths  With innovation, we’re talking about the translation of R&D into something that has economic value. Today, for hydrogen, there’s a lot of R&D on a fundamental topic, the production of hydrogen with electrolysis.

That’s something we’re going to see happening quite aggressively, because there’s been quite a bit of funding, stimulus from the EU, from the US, to make sure green hydrogen can be produced economically.

That said, I think some of the most interesting areas for innovation will come after we’ve recognized that near term innovation wins will be in getting the coming supply of low carbon hydrogen matched up with, and delivered to, sources of demand that are already or nearly commercially viable.

Many of these innovations will be in the storage and transmission of hydrogen, we’re doing quite a bit on that.

E&U  Can you talk a little more about ‘near term wins’ ?

SG  A few words on where I see opportunities. I think in the long term, there will be lots of innovation over how we transport hydrogen over long distances.

But in the very near term, as we think about how we’re going to get hydrogen to scale, a lot of work is going to be done on creating clusters, zones where you can start to match large scale supply and demand.

In these areas, storage of hydrogen, particularly for applications that need to be deployed quickly, forklifts, medium and heavy-duty trucking, logistics operations, they’re going to require storage of compressed hydrogen at relatively small scale, not very large.

This, for instance, will require innovations for tanks, to reduce the amount of carbon fibre that’s in a tank, which is adding a lot of cost. We can potentially bring in new materials, such as what we’re doing with various partners worldwide, adding graphene to carbon fibre composites to make much more robust tanks with lower amounts of carbon fibre, reducing costs signficantly relative to the state-of-the-art.

It’s not the most exciting topic, but I think, to catalyse and kick-start where innovation can happen quickly, that’s something we’ll see.

E&U  What other innovations are needed soon?

SG  Outside of the storage space, there is need for innovation in the near term in sectors where we’re not going to see the immediate ‘home run’ for hydrogen.

For chemicals, for steel, there’s very good opportunities in the near term. But a sector like aviation needs near-term innovation to get us moving toward long-term commercial viability.

E&U  Can you talk more about aviation?

SG  Longer term, looking at a country like the UAE, one of the big opportunities is in the transportation sector, particularly aviation. Today, we have more than 200 bn litres aviation fuel used globally, but it’s producing emissions that we have to decarbonize.

What I see as a near-term innovation opportunity is to move quickly toward low-cost carbon dioxide capture, and pair that captured carbon up with hydrogento produce the next generation of aviation fuels.

Right now we talk about ‘power to liquids.’ There’s an opportunity there. I think, around this innovation space, there will be a lot of work, as much on point-source carbon capture as on direct air capture.

There are a tremendous number of companies now looking at how they can deploy carbon capture to get 400 ppm CO2 from the air cost effectively, and match that up in systems that can take in green hydrogen and start to produce fuels which ultimately will be future fuels for aviation.

That type of fuel for aircraft probably won’t appear until well after 2030, but if we don’t start that thinking today about the required innovations, we’re not going to get there.

E&U  You mentioned clusters to get to scale. Can you describe what a cluster is?

SG  The US hydrogen strategy, has put more than $8 bn toward clusters that match hydrogen supply with demand at signficant scale and with minimal need for storage and transport of hydrogen. This clustering is complimented by investment of more than $1 bn in R&D  to bring down the cost of hydrogen produced by electrolysis to less than $1 per kg by 2031.

When you’re putting billions toward something you’re probably going to get where you want to go. Which is to say, $1 per kg of hydrogen produced by 2030. This means that the development of clusters is important to get off-takers of hydrogen moving at scale as related policies and standards for hydrogen use are developed and implemented.

In a cluster approach, technologies with relatively high technology readiness are moved forward while technologies with low technology readiness are advanced via collaboration with universities and other research organizations.

In a cluster environment, we’renot starting from basic research, but rather demonstrating research that has gotten to a relatively material level of technology development.  In parallel academic institutions and other research organizations can develop the next generation of technologies that will make hydrogen viable for chemicals, steel, aviation, shipping, power generation and other applications.

These sectors have long-term innovation trajectories toward commercial viability. But if you ask me today, it’s really about bringing to scale via clusters the knowledge of what we have and moving to scale.

I think this is an opportunity for the UAE and for other countries.

E&U  There are actual cluster strategies in the US and in Europe. What do clusters look like in the Middle East, for example in the UAE?

SG  I think in an informal way we see clusters forming around the sectors that most need to decarbonize quickly utilizing a vector like hydrogen. In fact, this region is considered to be ahead of much of the world in its ability to go quickly into hydrogen.

So announcements we see for green, or low carbon, hydrogen in chemicals, for instance ammonia, make sense.

For steel, the Middle East and North Africa produces only about 3% of global crude steel but accounts for nearly half of the global production of steel using direct reduction of iron with the direct reduction vianatural gas. Today, you can use about 30% hydrogen in this direct reduction and so steel companies in the region, such as Emirates Steel Arkan in the UAE, are well positioned to move toward 100% direct reduction of iron with hydrogen over time.

In the region, steel, chemicals and refining are all moving head with the use of zero and low-carbon hydrogen and so clusters of use are happening, although not in the very directed sense as we’re seeing the US and Europe.

In the US cluster model, supply and demand is developed through a formal proposal process with timelines, milestones and funding commitments very much part of the equation.

The government will provide financial support but not subsidize the whole thing. It’s got to be an economically viable cluster where technologies are fairly mature. I mean technologies that have been demonstrated in a relevant environment and so are ready to move toward full commercialization after the cluster begins operating.

The UAE and other countries in the region so far are developing hydrogen ecosystems somewhat organically around existing industries and opportunities.

E&U  Is there one we should watch in the US?

SG  US clusters have not been awared yet, and they will not be operational until mid-2020s. And they’re not entirely based on green hydrogen. They’re being set up such that each cluster will form around the energy and economic context of a region.

Heavy-duty vehicles, refineries, and other industries will be involved. Then green, blue, even ‘pink’ nuclear-based hydrogen, will be part of the cluster plans based on the region where the consortia are coming together.

From a purely technical and economic perspective, I’m not so keen on some aspects of hydrogen suggested for the cluster, like high-temperature heating for industry and hydrogen blending into natural gas networks.  

However, I do a lot of work on socio-technical systems. Due to social and political contexts, some regions may adopt hydrogen uses in clusters in ways that the rest of the world, on a technical-economic basis, wouldn’t agree with. For example, hydrogen might work for domestic heating in some places where heat pumps are not acceptable, for whatever reason.

So that’s what we need to consider, the complete technical, economic, social and political rationale for hydrogen uses in specific contexts.

E&U  So we can say the hydrogen story is a local story?

SG  Yes, for clusters. When you look internationally countries like Korea, Japan and Germany establish bilateral hydrogen supply relationships with different considerations. They’re going to be importing hydrogen, or a hydrogen derivative like ammonia, that is most cost effective and useful for the end use applications.

For example, in the UAE – Japan relationship, Mitsubishi already has announced its plans development of 100% ammonia-fired power generation and thenthere’s ammonia as a shipping fuel. Japan will pursue ammonia as a key means of leveraging hydrogen without the cost of cracking ammonia back to hydrogen and nitrogen.

Ammonia is of course critical as an input to urea for fertilizer, but eventually the CO2 embodied in urea goes back into the atmosphere when fertilizer is used in agriculture. Therefore, you will see more people working on a broad range of ammonia applications so that all bring net benefit. The relatively low cost of transporting ammonia long distances today is the driver.

In short, I think, there will be clusters, and there will be bilateral relationships which will both be important to scaling hydrogen supply and demand.

E&U  Looking at Saudi Arabia, there are huge concentrations of green hydrogen development in the west, and blue hydrogen development in the east of the country. Will they compete, or find their own niche?

SG  It’s hard to say. All of the GCC countries are unique. Oman, the UAE, and Saudi are the big GCC players in hydrogen right now. All of them have plans for very large-scale hydrogen for export, yet each also have important domestic applications for hydrogen.

For blue hydrogen, the key is robust methane and carbon management. So if you’re where ADNOC wants to be, at 0.1 percent leakage of upstream methane, and you can certify that, you’re a better player in blue hydrogen than other countries globally that are trying to figure out how to deal with leaks in their gas networks.

But I think you will see ‘coopetition’ in the region, with a lot of engagement on how countries can work together while still competing. There will be a lot of competition for markets because everybody wants to be big in export to countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea.

Everyone wants to export a lot, but it won’t be like oil. There won’t be an OPEC for hydrogen, because it will be more locally produced in countries that can produce it cost effectively. And today long distance hydrogen transport is not cost effective.

In Saudi Arabia, Aramco has entered some of the same partnerships as UAE. Japan is an important player for them. Korea will be an important player to the Gulf countries. India possibly, but India itself wants to be a big green hydrogen producer and exporter. It is similar for Germany, although Germany is not focused on export.

But it’s more interesting locally. Companies will produce hydrogen at lowest cost for products used locally and exported. Because steel is an exportable product, it will have to be decarbonized to addresscarbon border adjustments, as in Europe.

The UAE is going to decarbonize steel, refinery products, ammonia, and eventually aviation fuels for local airlines.  

Oman wants to go a in little different direction. They will build out the hydrogen production and industries that need hydrogen will be attracted to come. They will put in electrolysis-based production, and say, bring your industries to us, locate with us. So they’re a little riskier in their positioning.

E&U  You’ve done deep research on potential industrial applications of hydrogen. Many have said that heavy industry is the last stage of an energy transition. But your perspective, looking at local industrial clusters with hydrogen, is different.

Will green hydrogen first gain scale in these clusters?

SG  Yes. This is where it will start. I industry is where you’re going to have the pull for hydrogen in the near term.

Steel is already at the point of demonstration at scale based on the points discussed earlier

To the extent that refineries continue operating as they are, you need about a kilogram of hydrogen per barrel of oil that’s refined in the more complete refineries.

Methanol, and ammonia, will be decarbonizing very quickly. It’s straightforward to use low-carbon hydrogen for these chemicals.

For shipping, the more that methanol and ammonia become bunker fuels, the more shipbuilding companies are committing to that, you’ll see shipping become a big market for hydrogen and its derivatives.

In aviation, power-to-liquids is going to be big. It’s not going to be right away but we have to start demonstrations. Carbon capture is going to be big for this, because you need a carbon source. So carbon plus hydrogen going to aviation fuels through power-to-liquids is going to be important. This will be a nice stimulus for the development of direct-air-capture technologies.

E&U  But industry clusters won’t enable hydrogen for everything, such as heating?

SG  Utilizing gas blending, I don’t know. I would rather use a heat pump myself.

But there are places that will use pipeline blending of hydrogen with natural gas for heating purposes, places like the UK with huge pipeline infrastructure. Someone there will say, the power grid is not set up like the gas network, maybe we can transfer the gas network to hydrogen.

So local socio-technical contexts will dictate some of that.

E&U  What about hydrogen for industrial heat?

SG  Utilizing hydrogen for high temperature heating, I’m not such a big fan of it. In the cement industry, for instance, I think there are better ways.

I think for cement itself, the carbon capture and new chemistries will allow us to decarbonize and reduce the cement contribution to emissions. That will make high temperature heating through hydrogen less likely, although it may happen over time.

For steel, you would want reduction of ore using hydrogen, and an electric arc furnace to produce steel. You want to be electrifying steel, which is what direct reduction allows, and don’t want to use the high temperature blast oxygen furnace with high emissions.  

So now, even with natural gas, the direct reduction process for steel using natural gas is probably half the emissions of using a blast oxygen furnace.  

Steel can also be fully electrified with electrolysis, that’s another way to go although the technologies are still in demonstration. Then, however, it’s a concern about grid emissions for the electricity versus process emissions.

In general, industrial heating is energy intensive and needs to go. Separations via membranes, for instances, is great in cases where thermal separations can be avoided.

There are technologies now in demonstration for electrifying high temperature heating and these are promising.

E&U  Industrial clusters will be places to watch hydrogen gaining scale. Will these initial hydrogen markets be local, domestic markets, with export markets further down the road?

SG  Export is further away, naturally. The reason that clusters are gaining traction is that you don’t want to have to worry about transporting hydrogen long distances, when there’s no cost-effective way to do that now if the intent is hydrogen itself in the end use.

You can send ammonia the way it’s already internationally traded and use existing infrastructure. But you don’t want to have to crack back the ammonia into hydrogen because it’s not cost effective. That is innovation that is to come.

So what you want is local supply and demand balancing, minimizing the amount of storage required, the amount of pipeline transmission required, and any kind of long-distance transport. And when the clusters prove out, you can get, for instance, 100 tonnes per day and more, 30-plus thousand tonnes per year, of hydrogen, demonstated and that’s decent scale.

You can start to develop a business case on that, connecting clusters, which may be adjacent to ports. With bunkering, perhaps an ammonia-based ship, a methanol-based ship, to take liquid hydrogen, or ammonia, whatever it may be, abroad.

In North Africa a pipeline network will be most cost effective over long distances. But it’s not there today.

So I think local is where hydrogen uptake should start.

Decarbonize local products, because they’re tradeable, and start exporting traded products, like decarbonized steel. Then think about international shipping of hydrogen itself or one of its derivatives that can cost-effectively be transformed back to hydrogen.

E&U  So you think by 2030, we will see viable hydrogen within industrial clusters?

SG  Before then. You’re already seeing clusters in the UK. In the US, you will see them launching by the mid-2020s. So by 2030, yes, these clusters should be operating robustly.

And by 2030 you should start to see deeper engagement internationally, which will be more than just demonstrations. We know we can ship ammonia and liquid hydrogen. This will be coming, but that’s a 2030-plus story.

The mid-2020s to mid-2030s will see steel, refineries, chemicals, production of hydrogen locally, creating the standards, certificates of origin, and making sure that local supply and demand can be met.

E&U  Steve thanks very much for your insights. 

SG  My pleasure. 

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