Russian scientists assessed the prospects for introducing hydrogen technologies
In the middle of last year, the European Commission published the “Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate Neutral Europe.” According to Brussels, it is the first number of the Mendeleyev table, together with renewable energy sources, that should allow the Old World to reduce to zero the carbon footprint and, as a consequence, minimize environmental pollution. Already by 2030, the generating capacity of electrolyzers built within the borders of the EU should be at least 40 gigawatts (less than 4% of the total installed capacity in 2018). The same amount is planned to be imported, including from our country.
According to many analysts, Russia is simply obliged to jump on the bandwagon of a departing train and create technological lines for the export of nature’s lightest gas. After all, according to supporters of green energy, hydrocarbons will soon be of no use to anyone. And if we do not urgently re-orient to H2, then our national economy, which is largely dependent on oil and gas revenues, will be in a deep decline.
There is another opinion. Experts with firsthand knowledge of hydrogen production methods remind us that any of the available methods (whether derived from methane or by electrolysis) is too costly to stake seriously on it as a global energy resource. Businesses and the population would simply go bankrupt on their electricity bills. Besides, it is not quite clear how to store and, most importantly, transport this explosive gas. The existing pipeline system, for example, is not suitable for this purpose. Unlike methane, extremely active H2 would simply destroy it, causing major impacts in the places of welds.
Approximately 85 million tons of hydrogen are consumed in the world today. At the same time, it should be understood that the demand for it is not provided by the energy industry or transport at all, but by the oil refining and chemical industries. Cars, buses, and trains running on H2 certainly exist, but only as experimental models. The introduction of these models on an industrial scale is out of the question - it is also very expensive.
However, local projects have the right to life. For example, Russia is currently developing a program to create trains running on fuel hydrogen cells. They may be in demand instead of diesel-powered diesel locomotives in places that lack the necessary infrastructure to transmit electricity.
“In our opinion, hydrogen will not be able to obtain the status of a global energy resource. However, it is quite capable of becoming one of the tools that mankind needs to solve environmental problems. Civilization today is facing a serious challenge to significantly reduce the anthropogenic impact on nature. And to preserve sustainable development at the same time. Our research aims to better understand how to achieve both in unison. One of the areas is research to improve technologies for the production, storage, and transportation of hydrogen. They are being conducted on grants from Khazret M. Sovmen, a patron of the arts who, long before his victory in the elections for the presidency of the Republic of Adygea, without exaggeration, made a technological revolution in gold mining. This man understands perfectly well that science is at the heart of Russia’s progressive social and economic development, and to move it forward, it is necessary to attract the young generation of scientists to research,” says Georgy Buslaev, head of the Arctic Competence Center project established at St. Petersburg Mining University.
He specifies that according to some Western politicians, it is possible to reduce the carbon footprint only in case of complete abandonment of oil and natural gas consumption. However, this is unrealistic, because many decades will pass before green technologies can fully replace fossil fuels as the foundation of national economies. This will likely happen only at the end of the XXI century. Therefore, the task of scientists should include not only the search for alternatives to hydrocarbons but also research in the field of reducing the emission of harmful substances during their extraction, transportation, and use.
One of the most serious environmental problems associated with the fuel and energy complex is the burning of associated petroleum gas (APG). It is released in the process of pumping black gold out of the well and is a byproduct. Previously, it was simply burned in flares (and this happened all over the world), which led to the emission of CO2 and other harmful substances into the atmosphere. Today, the situation has changed slightly for the better, but the scale of the negative impact on the environment is still high.
No matter how strange it may seem at first glance, but it is through the export of hydrogen, or more precisely, its derivatives, that the situation can be changed. Today scientists of Mining University are working on modeling technological chains, based on capturing APG at the polar oil fields and transporting it to the gas-chemical plants located near the Northern Sea Route. There it can be used to produce a kind of “semi-finished products” to produce hydrogen.
“Storing and transporting H2 is a really serious task that requires breakthrough scientific solutions. You can’t just load it into an existing pipeline, because the molecule of this gas is so small that it can penetrate the crystal lattice of steel. So, it is very difficult to estimate the life of a pipeline when it is converted to hydrogen. Technologies for transporting hydrogen in a bound state look much more attractive. We are talking about supplying natural (and associated, which is the same thing - ed.) gas to the gas-chemical enterprise and further synthesis of methanol, ammonia, or cyclohexane. If they are then brought by tanker to the shipment point, they can be used there to produce hydrogen and other valuable components. The implementation of such a project will allow us to significantly reduce CO2 emissions during the production of hydrocarbons and provide European and Asian consumers with a resource that will be in demand in the future,” Georgy Buslaev explains.
The task of the university’s team of scientists is to adapt the Arctic fields to the requirements of low-carbon energy and produce high-margin goods, “universal bricks that can be used to build a new type of economy.” This does not mean that oil and gas extracted in the Arctic will become unclaimed. However, the share of primary raw materials in the structure of domestic exports should undoubtedly decrease at the expense of products with high added value. And hydrogen derivatives may well become one of the ways to achieve this goal, which will not only significantly reduce the anthropogenic impact on nature but also increase Russian budget revenues.
“Of course, we do not need to give up oil and gas production, as some hotheads in the West are calling for. It is clear that demand for them will continue to grow, primarily from Asian consumers. Hydrogen will never be able to fully replace them; nevertheless, we need to look for answers to the tightening rules of the game in foreign markets. One area is the development of renewable energy sources in regions where the climate is favorable. By the way, the first element in the Mendeleyev Table could be in high demand here, too. As you know, the main disadvantage of wind turbines and solar panels, which seriously limits their potential, is the lack of available technology for accumulating electricity on an industrial scale. Besides, existing storage systems are extremely sensitive to lower ambient temperatures, which makes it difficult to use them. But if we produce hydrogen from the excess flow energy, this will partially solve the problem of its accumulation,” continues Georgy Buslaev.
Last December, Vladimir Putin declared that the future of Russia is directly linked to the development of the Arctic, including in terms of mineral production there. In the foreseeable future, Gazprom Neft plans to produce about 30% of its total output in the Arctic. Rosneft and Novatek are implementing projects there that require huge investments, including the construction of new infrastructure.
There is no doubt that in the next 10-15 years the Far North will turn into a region that brings in a significant part of the budget revenues. The practical task that businesses and scientists face today in this regard is not only to obtain products that are in demand on the market but also to reduce the carbon footprint. Hydrogen technologies are undoubtedly one of the tools to achieve this goal. At the same time, we can hardly expect them to occupy any significant niche in the global energy industry. For this purpose, H2 is too expensive to produce, aggressive to metals, and, most importantly, explosive. The question of whether and when science will be able to compensate for these significant disadvantages remains open at this stage.