Hydrogen: The potential for industrial applications

The use of hydrogen isn’t yet ubiquitous in the industrial world, but it has an extensive history; it’s not new. A wide range of industrial sectors use hydrogen to power their industrial processes. For some, the question is why hydrogen hasn’t become mainstream globally, and, more importantly, how practical is it for modern applications in a world of resource scarcity and environmental crisis? In this article, we’ll examine hydrogen’s viability in industries that have relied on coal and carbon-emitting fuels for over a century.

All text and images courtesy of WATTCO INC.

Hydrogen is often used as a catalyst or the primary component for producing chemical products (and by-products). It is becoming more commonplace in various chemical-refining industries, but it is most prevalent in three sectors—ammonia, methanol, and oil refining.

Use of hydrogen in ammonia production

Ammonia production is vital for numerous uses, including refrigerant gases, water purification, and manufacturing. However, 80 percent of ammonia production goes toward agricultural fertilizers1. The production of ammonia is expected to increase by 40 percent over the next thirty years. The caveat is that traditional ammonia production harms the environment due to its reliance on natural gas and fossil fuels. However, ammonia producers use more hydrogen since it’s clean and renewable. More importantly, engineers can create “green ammonia” using the Haber process, which involves hydrogen from nitrogen and water electrolysis separated from the air. This method can significantly reduce the emissions associated with traditional ammonia production.

Use of hydrogen in methanol production

Although methanol can be produced from various sources, its predominant source is carbon-emitting fossil fuels and petroleum. Of course, the synthesis of these gases (and compounds) lead to harmful emissions and can threaten wildlife. The problem, however, isn’t methanol itself. It’s a cheaper alternative to other fuels, has a lower flammability risk than gasoline, and has more energy security since it can be produced from many sources.

That’s where hydrogen offers a viable alternative to methanol production. It’s far cleaner than fossil fuel sources and is widely available. For this reason, more methanol producers are using hydrogen as a production source by combining it with dehydrogenated pure carbon monoxide (CO2).

Use of hydrogen in oil refining

Anyone familiar with sulphur in oil (colloquially referred to as sour crude oil), knows how problematic this compound is. Sulphur is undesirable because when burned it converts into sulphur oxides which can lead to acid rain and other environment-damaging pollutants. Refineries now widely use hydrogen to remove sulphur from oil products, such as diesel fuels—as much as 1.33 billion standard cubic feet (SCF) daily in the United States. By extension, this leads to “cleaner” fuels since they release less sulphur oxide when burned.

The use of hydrogen for oil refineries is increasingly vital as we’re approaching the era of peak oil. As the demand for oil production ramps up, so will carbon emissions. Therefore, the oil industry must find cleaner ways to process crude oil to reduce these emissions. Hydrogen is a viable solution.

Why hydrogen isn’t yet used globally

In Europe, government officials have shifted their energy focus to adopting hydrogen as a fuel source. The European Commission announced an effort to use 40 gigawatts of electrolyzers to split water into hydrogen in its borders by 20302.

Germany is a notable example of this, announcing its National Hydrogen Strategy, an $8.2 billion investment in research and development of green hydrogen production. All of these seem like sensible initiatives, because hydrogen is helpful in a range of industries, such
as steelmaking, concrete production, and more. They’re also given the increasing demand for oil, but the downside is it will bring higher carbon emissions.

In North America, the picture is quite different. In 2020, The Energy Department announced it would invest $64 million in hydrogen research and development. That’s just a fraction of Germany’s investment.

And although American companies and industries are actively using hydrogen, 95 percent of its production relies on steam refining, which uses fossil fuels. Standard arguments for the reluctance to adopt hydrogen production include its high production cost and high reactivity (making it an explosion hazard). While these are real concerns, methods to produce hydrogen at a low cost and store it safely are improving. That suggests that what may be necessary is an increased focus on research rather than overreliance on existing methods.

Using electric heaters to create hydrogen

Although mainstream adoption of hydrogen has faced some hurdles, the production of hydrogen is, theoretically, straightforward. Hydrogen production is a thermochemical process using heat to release hydrogen, ideally from organic sources, such as biomass or water.

Electric heaters, such as those built here at Wattco, can facilitate this method of hydrogen extraction with relative ease. These heaters already produce little or no emissions and can generate sufficient heat fast. They’re also operable at low costs. If the demand for hydrogen use increases, the heating equipment will be readily available.

Here at Wattco, we build a wide range of electric heaters that can facilitate well-established processes and support emerging ones, such as hydrogen production.

About the company

WATTCO INC. is a manufacturing company developing electric heating products for use around the world since 1972. the company’s development in oil and gas industries, renewable energy, HVAC systems and government projects help customers to find alternative solutions to get projects off the ground in the most cost efficient way.

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