FEATURES

Hydrogen: Enabling the transition to green chemistry

Marcel Galjee, Energy Director AkzoNobel

There is enough energy in the world. The sun and wind contain more than enough to meet the needs of modern society. We can access this green energy with wind turbines at sea and solar panels on our roofs. But how do you store it, to make sure there's always enough available? One solution could lie in the most common element in the universe: hydrogen.

First a simple chemistry lesson about hydrogen. At standard temperature and pressure it exists as a colorless, odorless and highly flammable gas, H2. Water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom: H2O. These two elements can be separated with electricity by electrolysis to produce H2, but the process is so energy intensive that until now hydrogen has mostly been extracted from natural gas. That also requires a lot of energy generates the greenhouse gas CO2 as a byproduct. 

But there is a more sustainable method to make hydrogen. If you temporarily have excess electricity from wind or sun, this can also be used to make hydrogen via electrolysis. Hydrogen produced using renewable energy is a truly green form of energy – as burning it produces only water vapour, not CO2 – and it can also be stored.

Chicken and egg

Hydrogen can serve as a sustainable fuel for cars and buses but this is still only done on very small scale. Real growth requires a network of hydrogen stations and a large number of vehicles that can run on hydrogen. It is a real chicken-and-egg problem which AkzoNobel is trying to solve in cooperation with partners. Recently we started the construction of a hydrogen station at Chemiepark Delfzijl in the Netherlands. It's a concrete step towards zero-emission public transportation with a clean and sustainable fuel.

Scale makes the difference

Hydrogen is generated during the production of chlorine. Until now it has mostly been used as a fuel in the production process, but in larger quantities it is highly suitable for use as a raw material for all kinds of chemical processes. With hydrogen from renewable sources – green hydrogen – that step is even more attractive. The scale in particular is what makes it worthwhile. Hydrogen as a large-scale, green raw material for mobility and industry can make a real difference and help us toward our target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. 

Collaboration

The production of green hydrogen offers huge opportunities for us. We have years of experience with electrochemical production of hydrogen. Long-term cooperation with new partners is necessary for the development of new value chains. With Dutch energy company NUON and others, we are working on incorporating hydrogen into the production of ammonia, a potential fuel for power plants if there is a shortage of electricity. Together with Dutch gas transporter Gasunie we are looking at how to make methanol, one of the most widely used raw materials in the chemical industry, using hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis plus CO, CO2 and biomass. That's the beauty of hydrogen: you can use it as a raw material when you have enough, but also count on it if there is no wind or sun and the power grid demands extra production. 

To make this a reality, we are considering a new pilot plant for the production of green hydrogen directly from water. From 2020 we could potentially produce around 4000 tons of hydrogen every year, enough for a bus to drive around the world 1500 times.

Those dreams of cheap natural gas are far behind us. A look ahead reveals many opportunities for the use of hydrogen as a raw material for energy and chemistry in the Netherlands.