23. February 2021
Topic:  Alternative fuels

💧Will Hydrogen Help Us Decarbonize Our Economy?

Hydrogen is a promising clean energy source that has the potential to play a major role in our transition to a low-carbon future. Václav Bystrianský, an expert on hydrogen from ORLEN UniCRE, discusses how hydrogen can be used to decarbonize transportation, heat homes, and generate electricity. Bystrianský also discusses the challenges that need to be overcome before hydrogen can become a mainstream energy source.

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Interview transcript 

ML (Michael Londesborough): It is a simple law of nature that all activity, all work, requires a source of energy and since the industrial revolution that sort of energy has been mainly carbon rich. However, we are living in transitional times, where we're moving away from carbon into other sources of energy. A big player in that will be hydrogen. 

ML: With me today is Václav Bystrianský, who is working at ORLEN UniCRE, which is the educational and research and development, a part of the ORLEN Unipetrol group. Václav is specializing in hydrogens, so he's with me here to talk about hydrogen. Welcome to Let's talk about it. Thank you for coming. Now, when we hear about hydrogen, it's often in the context of the future. So my first question is: Why that is? Why do we not have hydrogen with us today and now?

VB (Václav Bystrianský): I’m glad you asked. Actually, most people know that hydrogen has been with us for more than a century now. I think the reason why it's always mentioned as the fuel of the future is because of our intensity to the seeking for a carbon free or carbon neutral future and carbon free fuel. Hydrogen has the capability to play a big role in the carbonization of industry and the applications in our cars, so I think that the intensity of the fuel future makes hydrogen special and visible to the general public.

ML: Okay, so the driving force behind hydrogen as a fuel is, as you've mentioned, this drive to the decarbonization of our economy (with the reasons behind, which we've covered on many occasions). So, is hydrogen mainly going to replace carbon-based fuels in mobility? Is it going to be mainly about little cars?

VB: Not at all, actually. The applications of the hydrogen or let's say the low emission hydrogen, the future hydrogen etc., are not only in fuel cell vehicle cars or the hydrogen cars. Actually, it's just one of the three possible ways where we can use the hydrogen. Of course it could be in decarbonizing the transport or low emission transport, but the hydrogen will also play a crucial role in decarbonizing the energy sector - whether as the low emission fuel or for example as a self-sufficient energy carrier for the households. But mainly, it could help us decarbonize the heavy industry, which we have now - namely speaking metallurgy or refinery and other chemical industries. 

ML: I see. So for you, there's a future for hydrogen not just in mobility. I was automatically thinking that it's going to be concentrated on our vehicles. But also there are other aspects to that hydrogen economy, you can see. So it's a very general platform that hydrogen can decarbonize - not just mobility, but throughout our economy. Can we focus a bit on these three aspects? Could you maybe extrapolate a little? If we start with mobility - how can we use hydrogen to power our cars? And what are the challenges that we face to go through that transition?

VB: Definitely. Well, as I said at the very beginning, hydrogen is here and is widely used in the industry for more than a century. It's already used for example in the mobility – one of the main usages of the hydrogen is during the production of conventional fossil fuels, whether it's the benzene, gasoline or diesel. We use hydrogen in that sector for upgrading the fuel to get the end user quality. If we produce renewable hydrogen, we can use the hydrogen for such use and decarbonize the whole process. In terms of energy sector, when we burn hydrogen it doesn't produce CO2, so we can use the hydrogen to burn it already in the steam burners or to mix it with the gas already and lower our emissions at the energy sector, or we can use the hydrogen as an energy carrier that could be used in the fuel cells, which are electrochemical devices that, from the hydrogen and oxygen from the air, produce pure electricity with no emission. Of course, then there's a third sector. Since we already know that hydrogen is used in the industry, we can substitute the feedstock, that is used now, for the feedstock with low or zero emission footprint, which is the renewable hydrogen.

ML: I see you're saying that hydrogen will play a big role in our production of electricity, so it's going to be used as a part of the mix. If we go through to, let's say, mixing with other renewable sources of electricity, which are of course a bit unpredictable - in terms of when the wind's blowing we can get a sort of wind energy, when the sun's shining etc. So hydrogen could be something which could link these sustainable sources of electricity by being a constant source onto the electrical grid.

VB: It could be one of the cases where the hydrogen will play a role. If we increase the amount of renewables that we have today, we can, at some points, use the hydrogen as the grid balancing service, where we can store the renewable electricity into the hydrogen. But I think that's not the main reason, why we want to keep the hydrogen alive. I think the huge potential of the renewable hydrogen – the hydrogen with no emission, is the variety of use within the industry or within the within the energy sector.

ML: Okay. Now, I want to take a step back and look at some of the sort of the fundamentals of hydrogen as a fuel. It can be argued that hydrogen cannot be classified really as a fuel, simply because there's no natural resources of hydrogen – we have to generate the hydrogen. So, I was interested in your point of view on that. Can we really classify hydrogen as a fuel or is it just a carrier of energy?

VB: Both interpretations are correct, but I like your point that hydrogen is not technically a fuel, because it's not simply existing in the natural form, so you have to always generate the hydrogen. But, if we burn hydrogen for example in any gas turbines, of course, it's a fuel, because we use the heat generated from the burning the hydrogen and there's no CO2. But more interesting applications are, exactly as you said, as the energy carrier or as the feedstock point of view, because we use the hydrogen for the chemical reactions, but we can store the electron or the energy stored in hydrogen atoms and then use the electron stored somewhere else in the fuel cells.

ML: Okay, you mentioned that ORLEN UniCRE in the ORLEN Unipetrol group already produces, as a byproduct of their current activities, a lot of hydrogen gas. But if we're looking to go forward to a larger roll out of an application of hydrogen as a fuel source, then we're going to have to increase the capacity of production and so I'm interested to ask you about: what do you understand about what the future sources of hydrogen will be for us? Linked to that, we often hear the terms gray, green and blue hydrogen – could you tell us a bit about what that actually means and how do you see that progressing into the future? How do you see our diversity of hydrogen sources playing out? 

VB: Sure. First of all, the hydrogen is colorless and odorless gas. So whether it's a gray, green or blue hydrogen, from the chemical point of view it's still the same molecule. The colors actually refer to the source of the hydrogen or the production - how it was achieved to produce the hydrogen. The gray refers to the “standard way”, which is from natural gas or from residues of heavy oil fractions. Basically, what I mean by this is that the ray hydrogen had some emission factor or some emission footprint. The green hydrogen is widely known now, because it’s a zero emission hydrogen and this is where we speak about the hydrogen produced by electrolysis, which is preferably powered by renewables. With that we need to take to an account that for every production of green hydrogen you need to start with the energy source, which are the renewables. You cannot simply use the renewables, which you have now, because you are actually stealing the renewable electricity from the mix, which you already have. You have to consider building or increasing the capacity of the renewables, if you want to produce green hydrogen. Last, the blue hydrogen is in general a by-product or a waste hydrogen that is produced during the different process. For example, from chlorine alkali electrolysis, where the main product is the chlorine and dye, plus the byproduct is, for example, hydrogen. So this is a good example of blue hydrogen. 

ML: I see, so there are several industrial processes, which are occurring now - such as the isolation of salts, where you're going to look to close the loop to form a sort of circularity there and take that waste hydrogen and then put it to good use. But let's talk in terms of figures and some numbers about capacity in the future. What is likely to be the main sources? At ORLEN UniCRE, what are you working on there in terms of looking to really produce a larger capacity?

VB: Well, if you go to the very beginning of the value chain, there are only two possible ways how to source the hydrogen. Either it's the renewable electricity or it's the biomass. By biomass I mean not only the biogas, but for example communal waste or plastic waste, because with increasing emphasis on circular economy during the reprocessing of these waste materials, we can also have some source of the hydrogen. The problem with the hydrogen from the waste materials is that you need purity, so you need to clean the hydrogen. Basically, it’s about closing the loop and using or finding responsible and sustainable sources of the hydrogen.

ML: Okay, tell me a bit about the coordination necessary between regions of the Czech republic, eventually perhaps even international cooperation to work with this hydrogen economy… If we look into the future, where large sectors of the economy is decarbonized and goes towards hydrogen, how will this play out in terms of the production, the selling and buying of hydrogen gas internationally and nationally?

VB: Well, we in the Czech Republic have a little disadvantage here that we don't have any sea. The reason, why I'm speaking about it is that a lot of European states are for example focused on building the source of the renewable electricity offshore, which produces sufficient amount of electricity that can be then transformed on land into the hydrogen. If we talk about the transport of the hydrogen from country to country, it's very difficult, if we decide to transport the hydrogen on the road, because it will very negatively influence the economic or the business model of the hydrogen itself. So we, in the Czech republic, need to focus on increasing the amount of the renewables or using the excess electricity from nuclear power and generate low emission hydrogen. But since we are talking about a very new market, a new development area, this is still in the terms of legislation. I hope that the legislation will end up in broadening the ways, how you can produce low emission hydrogen as much as possible.

ML: Okay. Václave, you are working at ORLEN UniCRE, the research and development and educational wing of the ORLEN Unipetrol group, where you’re focusing on hydrogen. Tell me, how could hydrogen help to decarbonize the ORLEN Unipetrol group? 

VB: Well, the ORLEN Unipetrol group is already the biggest producer of the hydrogen in the Czech republic. Nonetheless, it's also the biggest consumer of the hydrogen itself, so most of the hydrogen that is produced in ORLEN Unipetrol is used in ORLEN Unipetrol.

ML: Okay, tell us on what it is used…

VB: It is used either in the refinery processes for upgrading the fuels as we said or for making the better chemicals. But we need to understand that all the hydrogen produced from the oil has the certain CO2 footprint. If we increase our capacity or if we enable us to produce hydrogen with no emission factor, we can decarbonize all the sectors or all the processes that are held in the refinery. This is actually a quite popular trend in heavy industry and Europe as well.

ML: I see, so you're saying that at the moment much of this produced hydrogen is the “gray hydrogen”…

VB: Exactly. 

ML: …and you're looking to replace that “gray hydrogen” with green or blue hydrogen, which are differently sourced and that to be used in the various places…

VB: …Yes, in the various processes that we have right now, either for production of conventional fuels or for production of the plastic – they will be still the same product, the same fuel that the general public knows, but the overall emission factor of that particular product will be lower thanks to hydrogen.

ML: So the chemistry remains the same. What's different is how we sourced the various chemicals to make it more of a sort of circular sourcing, a more sustainable way. But, if I'm not mistaken, hydrogen is still produced as a byproduct for many other processes there. So, there’s going to be an increase in the capacity of hydrogen production, which could then go into the wider economy? Is that the plan? For example, what I’m saying is, I can see how hydrogen, especially the blue and green source hydrogen, could be used to decarbonize processes, which are happening in the petrochemical industry. But will the petrochemical industry also become a supplier of hydrogen to the wider economy? 

VB: Yes, I believe that this is exactly the case, because now we need to understand that hydrogen is already widely used and simply by focusing only on the decarbonizing of transport, it will be very difficult to fulfill all the needs of the hydrogen that we have now. We need to understand that there's a huge amount of capacity of renewables that we need to incorporate in producing the renewable hydrogen. Then, when we can use the hydrogen to decarbonize, for example, the refinery, we might use the hydrogen produced now in refinery for increasing hydrogen mobility in the future, which will still provide us the low or zero emission cars. 

ML: Okay, perhaps I would also be interested to ask: from your very specific point of view, how you see the whole thing panning out into the future? As you are indeed active in informing our strategy going into the future, what for you, Václav, are the main barriers that we have to get over? What are the challenges that we're facing currently that we need to overcome in order to really roll out this hydrogen system? 

VB: I believe that one of the most crucial, important strategy is to not rush the hydrogen roll out and let's not focus only on green hydrogen in the cars, because the potential is huge. Crucial will be focusing on sufficient energy source, sufficient increased capacity and renewables and also to understand, when the hydrogen mobility comes, how to transport the hydrogen in very large amounts and how to store the hydrogen in very large amounts and of course how to purify the energy. 

ML: So purification, storage and transport, so we can get our cars to these stations and link up. Václav Bystrianský, thank you very much for coming to “Let's talk about it” and telling us about hydrogen! I have a small gift for you, thank you very much and good luck with all of your work. Cheers! 

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