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Germany wants to produce hydrogen from Russian gas

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The German energy agency Dena called the proposal of Russian colleagues to build a pilot plant at the Nord Stream exit point to produce the lightest gas in nature by pyrolysis of methane a “great idea.” It is planned to be used in power engineering and transport: it is known that since recently, H2 is considered in Europe as one of the tools to achieve carbon neutrality. However, according to scientists, first, it is necessary to build a test site and carefully study the entire technological chain. Otherwise, such projects may turn out to be unprofitable and unsafe.

These statements were made during a workshop of the working group on hydrogen created as part of the Russian-German Rwa Materials Forum. The participants gathered online to discuss the latest scientific research results on pyrolysis and electrolysis efficiency, H2 transportation, and storage, as well as to outline the most promising directions of bilateral cooperation.

In his presentation, Alexander Ishkov, Head of Energy Saving and Ecology Department of Gazprom, noted that the average man has long been confused by the color classifications of the first number of the Mendeleev Table. And it is difficult to understand how green, blue, gray, or brown hydrogen is safe for the environment. So he began his presentation with statistical calculations, taking the carbon footprint of the natural gas that is now supplied to the EU via Nord Stream as 100%.

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“If we theoretically (the practical possibility of transporting H2 through the current system of gas pipelines is not scientifically substantiated - ed.) add 10% of hydrogen into the pipe, then CO2 emissions will be reduced by only 1-2%, depending on where the mixing will take place. If you build a plant near the outlet point of Nord Stream and produce hydrogen there by pyrolysis of methane using renewable sources, then the emissions will immediately be reduced by 80%. This product would be classified as blue and would be very close to the green. If we take energy for the pyrolysis process from the grid, with the current structure of the energy balance, this figure will be somewhat more modest - 55%. If we use the electrolysis method, the footprint will not be less; on the contrary, it will increase by 3.7 times,” said Alexander Ishkov.

In this context, he suggested creating a consortium to build a pilot H2 production from natural gas in Germany, on the Baltic Sea coast, and to use the latest scientific developments that exist both in the FRG and in Russia in the implementation of this project.

“It will be a real step forward in practical terms which will show the willingness of both sides to cooperate and demonstrate the possibilities of specific technologies to create similar large enterprises on their basis in the 2030s or 2040s,” suggested Ishkov.

This initiative was warmly supported by Dena representatives, including Hannes Seidl, Head of Energy Systems and Services, who moderated the seminar on the German side.

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“I believe this is a great idea. However, in my opinion, such a plant could have been built not in Greifswald, but closer to the consumer, it would have been more economically advantageous,” Seidl commented on Gazprom's initiative.

Alexander Ishkov explained that lowering the methane transportation leverage helps to reduce the carbon footprint; accordingly, if the company is relocated inland, the footprint will be somewhat higher. But if some customer is ready to buy the whole volume of hydrogen produced at the plant, perhaps this would be the best solution.

Most of the seminar participants on the Russian side were watching this discussion with undisguised surprise because not long ago the Germans didn’t even want to hear anything about pyrolysis. They considered electrolysis from renewable energy sources to be the only acceptable H2 production option. After all, this is the only way to achieve complete carbon neutrality.

Now, it seems that the emphasis has shifted somewhat, and in Germany, they remembered that in addition to the environment, there is also economics. And it dictates its harsh laws. If you build a plant where you make hydrogen from the electricity that was produced by wind turbines or solar panels and then use H2 as an energy resource in a thermal power plant to get electricity again (since available technologies that allow industrial-scale storage of energy obtained by RES do not exist), its cost increases in times, as does the final price of consumer goods, such as cars.

This situation will play into the hands of competitors in other parts of the world, for example, in Asia, where they do not understand what the Europeans are concerned about. And it will also undermine the confidence of taxpayers who don’t want the fight against pollution to empty their pockets and affect their finances. Especially against the background of the pandemic, which has already lowered the average standard of living. This was reminded by Vladimir Litvinenko, co-chairman of the Russian-German Raw Materials Forum and rector of the St. Petersburg Mining University.

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“Today we started talking about obtaining hydrogen by pyrolysis of methane, this shows the positive shift that has taken place in our minds. We need to show society that we are looking for common ground, and we are finding it, which is essential. It is equally important to implement ideas of sustainable development and, if possible, technologies that reduce the negative impact on the environment. Of course, if these innovations have proven to be effective and safe, and their promotion is not an impossible burden for business and consumers,” said Vladimir Litvinenko.

Unfortunately, the reliability of many projects related to hydrogen, which is now widely discussed, is highly questionable. According to the Rector of Mining University, there are no technologies in the world that can guarantee reliable storage and transportation of H2, which is an extremely active gas. Its molecule is so small that it can penetrate the crystal lattice of steel, and thus destroy it quickly enough.

“We conducted research on the use of hydrogen in traditional generating plants and came to the unequivocal conclusion that the possibilities of its mixing with natural gas are very limited. The ratio cannot be more than 20 percent to 80 percent. If this level is exceeded, thermodynamic impact on elements of generating equipment will lead to their destruction. Due to this and a number of other reasons we cannot safely use hydrogen in domestic conditions as natural gas," noted the head of St. Petersburg Mining University.

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In order to change the conjuncture, it is necessary to strengthen the scientific component, in particular, to build a test site, where the entire technological chain will be created, as well as laboratories for relevant experiments. Otherwise, as Vladimir Litvinenko believes, "there will be no progress. After all, the aggressive effect of hydrogen on metals is not the only problem that needs to be solved before we can seriously talk about its introduction as a global energy resource. It is no less important, for example, to increase the safety of the combustion process of H2, which under certain conditions explodes.

It should also be taken into account that when it burns, the flame temperature reaches two thousand degrees, and at a temperature of more than a thousand and a half degrees nitrogen from the air begins to oxidize oxygen, which leads to the formation of thermal nitrogen oxides, harmful to human health. What will happen to the body with their prolonged exposure to the respiratory tract is not yet fully understood, this process requires further study.

“Right now we are financing the profile research out of our pocket. But we can't afford a test site. We are ready to consider the possibility of participating in such a joint project, regardless of where it will be implemented - on the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany or near St. Petersburg. And we invite our colleagues to have a substantive conversation about it,” Litvinenko said.

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The seminar moderator on the Russian side, Kirill Molodtsov, Aidé to the Head of the Presidential Administration, enthusiastically supported the rector's idea and expressed his willingness to help find partners. His colleague Hannes Seidl also found the initiative highly desirable.

"Of course, we need to look at the entire value chain, from its beginning to the consumer. Only then can we create the right conditions for the large-scale use of hydrogen in industry. There are still a lot of questions, including technological ones. And we have to give clear answers to them together," said the Dena representative.

The parties agreed to return to a more detailed discussion of the project at the next seminar on March 18.