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Is the green hydrogen economy ready to take off?

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

It will be, pending improvements in efficiency and sustainability

The signs are everywhere, with investments and projects sprouting up on every continent:  the global hydrogen economy is about to go green, and the positive consequences will be huge in terms of environmental impact. And despite their strong presence in the media, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are only a fraction of the phenomenon. Their advent is, of course, good news for clean mobility, but the overall hydrogen economy is larger by orders of magnitude, with over 90 million tons produced worldwide every year for century-old applications in fertilizers, metallurgy, oil & gas, and the chemical industry.

Decarbonation with fuel cell technology, and beyond

Produced from water as the sole raw material, hydrogen itself doesn’t cause any atmospheric pollution or greenhouse effect. The challenge is, however, that it’s mostly produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. This means that developing the sustainable use of hydrogen must go hand-in-hand with switching to so-called ‘green hydrogen’, which is produced using entirely renewable energy, as opposed to ‘gray’ (which uses fossil fuels), ‘blue’ (made from natural gas, but with carbon capture) or ‘pink’ hydrogen (nuclear power).

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Why do we rely on hydrogen so much? Its interest resides in its versatility. It’s widely used for the production of basic chemical ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide (one of the world’s most common oxidizers and antiseptics) or ammonia, but it also has the useful property of being flammable; as such, it can partially replace natural gas for domestic consumption (up to 10% of hydrogen could be injected into distribution systems without requiring consumers to change their cooking and heating equipment). Lastly, hydrogen is also a vector for electric energy: that’s what a fuel cell is – hydrogen converted into electricity to power a motor – but that property can also be applied to the transportation and storage of electricity.

As one can easily imagine, developing the use of emissions-free hydrogen in all these domains would be a huge step towards meeting the planet’s decarbonization targets. In fact, reaching net zero carbon emissions targets simply isn’t possible without clean hydrogen.

“There are really two aspects here: using the lever of green hydrogen to decarbonize the existing hydrogen economy, and using hydrogen for new applications such as clean mobility,” says Imre Horvath, the Head of Solvay’s Green Hydrogen Platform. Indeed, what’s the point of developing fuel cell electric vehicles, trucks and trains if the hydrogen they consume generates CO2 for its production?

The question therefore isn’t whether developing the industrial applications of green hydrogen would be a good idea for the climate, but how to do it. 

The answer lies in increasing the technical feasibility and cost-efficiency of the green hydrogen economy in order to vastly increase its production: it is estimated that switching to decarbonized hydrogen for current industrial applications requires multiplying current global production by a factor of 10. To do that, you need political will, hefty investments and, of course, the right materials.

If we want to increase sustainability, cost-effectiveness and circularity, the materials of today cannot be the materials of tomorrow.

Vincent Meunier, Sales & Development Director, Green Hydrogen Platform

All the advanced materials for the H2 economy

The first two elements are in motion. “The world is latching on to the hydrogen wagon,” says Vincent Meunier, Sales & Development Director of Solvay’s Green Hydrogen Platform. “India is launching a huge green hydrogen production program, Japan wants to become a tech powerhouse for hydrogen, there are programs in development in Australia, the USA, Chile, China, Saudi Arabia, the EU… with a strong geostrategic element in terms of energy independence on top of decarbonization objectives. And we are working with companies in all these countries.”

That’s because Solvay is one of the world’s only companies capable of providing the highly advanced materials (such as polymers for impossibly thin membranes and low-weight, high-resistance polysulfones) needed for the production and utilization of hydrogen. Hence the creation of the Group’s Green Hydrogen Platform, which brings together all of its relevant solutions and competencies to better serve and advise customers across industries.

Though the basic principle remains the same – separating the oxygen and hydrogen atoms contained in molecules of water – there are three main technologies to produce hydrogen: proton exchange membrane electrolysis, alkaline aqueous water electrolysis, and solid oxide electrolysis.  “To make green hydrogen, you need water, wind or sun and a unit called an electrolyzer. The electrolyzer contains a core composed of a membrane and electrodes that create the electrochemical reaction enabling water to be split into hydrogen and oxygen,” sums up Imre.

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It just so happens Solvay is in the unique position of providing materials that sit at the heart of the leading electrolyzer technologies. “It’s still the early days, like ten years ago for electric vehicle batteries: the first generations were expensive and had low performance,” continues Imre. “And because these are highly specialized products with very specific means of production almost entirely dedicated to hydrogen-related applications, we need to establish collaboration across the value chain with the manufacturers of electrolyzers, fuel cells, trucks, membranes, etc. so that we can develop materials based on a firm understanding of market needs and mutualize risks.”

Another critical element to enable the takeoff of green hydrogen is the acceleration of production rates. To help achieve that, Solvay is busy expanding its capacity and global footprint, establishing dedicated labs and regional technical teams to support customers and partners at every stage of product development and commercialization. But acceleration won’t be possible without automation. “To scale up, we need to automate production units,” says Vincent. “By 2030, we’re going to multiply the production of electrolyzers and fuel cells by 100.” Yet not all materials are compatible with automation: adapting production lines by switching to the right materials is an absolute necessity for rates to pick up and costs to decrease. “The problem is that hydrogen fuel cell cars are still made of metal parts, machined piece by piece like 100 years ago,” continues Vincent. “Replacing all that with polymers will increase production rates and also enable better hydrogen fuel cell efficiency, thanks to higher energy density and reduced weight. Additionally, it will allow fuel cell technology to be used for other applications and different types of vehicles, on and off the road.”

Research and innovation will also play a key role in improving the durability, efficiency and total cost of hydrogen technologies. One area where Solvay has already made headway is with our Aquivion® ionomer for PEM fuel cells and electrolyzers, which opens the electrolyzer operating window further to more current at the same voltage than what’s been achieved so far. In other words, it gives you more bang for your euro (or dollar, or whatever currency you operate in)! This and other innovations from Solvay are fundamentally changing the economics of green hydrogen, bringing the technology closer to viability.   

Whatever the use, the challenges remain the same. “If we want to increase sustainability, cost- effectiveness and circularity,” concludes Vincent, “the materials of today cannot be the materials of tomorrow.”