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Picture: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE
Picture: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE

A hydrogen molecule is tiny. So tiny, in fact, that trying to store and transport it via existing tanks and pipes can end up causing cracks in steel. If hydrogen is to become a clean fuel of the future, urgent technological solutions are needed to keep it in place and move it at will.

Enter H2SITE, a Spanish start-up, that promises to do just that. It has secured €12.5m in investments from the Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Ventures, French utility Engie and Norwegian oil giant Equinor.

While there are existing methods to store and transport hydrogen, they can be prohibitively expensive, especially compared with moving around its carbonaceous cousin natural gas. H2SITE says that transporting hydrogen could cost as much as three times the cost of hydrogen production. The start-up offers to provide that service at a fraction of a cost, if its technology can scale.

There are two modes in which H2SITE’s technology works. First is to use existing natural-gas pipelines to move hydrogen from where it is produced to where it is consumed. These pipes can carry about 30% hydrogen when mixed with natural gas. The idea is that diluted hydrogen will be less corrosive to existing steel infrastructure. Freshly produced hydrogen is injected into a pipeline containing natural gas, close to where hydrogen is made, and recovered using H2SITE’s filter where it needs to be consumed.

“It’s like being able to separate a great Bordeaux wine after it’s mixed with a common wine,” said Sebastien Arbola, executive vice-president at Engie.

Ship movement

No sieve in the world can filter out hydrogen (or separate a Bordeaux from supermarket wine). So H2SITE makes use of some clever chemistry that exploits hydrogen’s liking for certain metals such as palladium. Under the right conditions of heat and pressure, a hydrogen atom on the surface of a palladium alloy can split apart and reform when the temperature and pressure are lower. That means H2SITE can filter hydrogen at 99.9% purity from a pipe carrying 5%-30% hydrogen with the rest being natural gas.

Tha is not all. If it is not in pipes, hydrogen (H₂) is likely to be moved around in ships — not as itself but trapped within ammonia (NH₃) or methanol (CH₃OH). That is because ammonia can be easily turned into a liquid and methanol is already a liquid. Projects are being developed in countries such as Australia that have much space for solar and wind farms where hydrogen is produced, converted to ammonia, moved on ships, and then recovered by undoing the chemical reaction.

Converting hydrogen to ammonia and back is highly energy intensive. Bringing down the cost of ammonia cracking will be key to making large investments to scale up hydrogen production for exports, according to Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath, executive vice-president of gas and low carbon energy at BP.

“What we need to address is the cost of ammonia cracking,” Dotzenrath said in a recent interview about the company’s plans for a green hydrogen hub in Australia.

Early days

H2SITE’s second mode of operation causes it to become a cracker for ammonia or methanol. All that needs to be done, according to Andrés Galnares, H2SITE’s CEO, is to increase the number of palladium membranes and tweak the temperature and pressure at which the reactor is run.

“It is early days” for H2SITE, Arbola said. The start-up has reactors that can be used to filter out 40kg of hydrogen per day, whereas its commercial units will be able to handle 200kg and 500kg respectively. Once scaled up, Galnares says that the cost of filtering the clean-burning fuel will be about $0.80/kg of hydrogen.

The start-up already has three sites where the technology is to be tested. In the UK, ammonia made with renewable hydrogen will be converted to hydrogen. In Spain, a consortium of energy companies and research centres will test the generation, injection and transportation of hydrogen, with H2SITE providing reactors for filtering. In France, H2SITE’s reactors will generate hydrogen for vehicles.

Engie’s Arbola is clear that in building out hydrogen infrastructure or repurposing existing pipelines, it is important to ensure that hydrogen does not leak. That is because, while hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas, it can extend the life of existing potent warming gases such as methane or cause the production of another greenhouse gas, ozone.

With natural gas prices at such highs, green hydrogen is now cheaper than natural gas in eight European countries. That means you can expect more start-ups with technologies that work to make the hydrogen economy a reality.

Bloomberg News

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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