There is a good reason why hydrogen is being touted as a key enabler of the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier, extremely energy dense, light and can be stored for long periods of time. It also produces no carbon emissions, generating only heat and water when burned. However, the vast majority of hydrogen used today is actually highly polluting because of how it’s extracted. Around 96% of hydrogen produced globally is “grey,” which means it’s made using fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, emitting vast quantities of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Only green hydrogen, produced with renewable electricity, is a truly clean energy solution.
Green hydrogen is made via a process called electrolysis, where electricity powers an electrolyzer, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. For hydrogen to be considered green, the electricity used must come from renewable energy sources such as solar or wind.
Hydrogen is already used across the chemical and refining industries. Breakthroughs in electrolyzer technology mean that it could also become a viable alternative to fossil fuels in the so-called heavy industries, which are more difficult to electrify – think steel and concrete production, long-haul transportation and aviation.
Overcoming the barriers to green hydrogen production
Steelmaking – which also happens to be one of the largest CO2 producers than any other heavy industry – is one of the top candidates for green hydrogen. Through a breakthrough manufacturing process using green hydrogen, it’s possible to create green steel, which could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 95%. However, there is a huge amount of work to be done for green steel to achieve industrial scale. For one, steel manufacturers will need access to abundant supplies of net-zero hydrogen.
McKinsey predicts that demand for green hydrogen could grow to upwards of 600 million metric tons a year by 2050. Today, the total planned production for green and blue hydrogen (the latter of which is produced with natural gas) is around 26 million metric tons annually by 2030.
To successfully scale up green hydrogen, costs need to come down so that it can compete in price with fossil fuels. At the moment, green hydrogen costs up to four times as much as grey hydrogen, ranging anywhere from €3 to €8 per kilogram, compared to just €1 to €2 per kilogram.
Key challenges of green hydrogen production:
- Cost of production
- Electrolyzer efficiency
- Cost of equipment maintenance
Ramping up green hydrogen production and achieving the necessary economies of scale requires hydrogen makers to rapidly expand electrolyzer capacity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2020 global electrolyzer capacity was 0.3 gigawatts (GW). By 2026, global electrolyzer capacity should reach almost 17 GW. Capacities are expected to continue to grow as costs fall and technology developments gain momentum.
The role of virtual twins in building electrolyzers
At first glance, the process of creating hydrogen – using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen – seems relatively straightforward. However, electrolyzers themselves are a highly complex piece of equipment that can’t be bought off the shelf. Depending on their use case and type, they can vary significantly in terms of their design, set up and operation, and are usually one of the biggest cost components in green hydrogen production.
Electrolyzer equipment manufacturers must consider everything from material costs, module sizes, set up variability and suitability for specific industrial applications, while taking into account durability and stack degradation rates. Electrolyzers have an expected service life of anything from 5,000 to 80,000 hours, making it essential to have the capabilities to monitor assets throughout their entire lifecycle.
To manage the complexities of designing, manufacturing and running green hydrogen facilities, companies need to be able to model, test and optimize electrolyzers within an entire operation setup in the virtual world. Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform delivers the end-to-end functionality manufacturers need to achieve this.
Using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform’s virtual twin capabilities – to build a complete digital replica of the real-life asset – they can follow each piece of equipment at every stage of its lifecycle, from commissioning to maintenance. From here, they can optimize cell stacks, factor in equipment maintenance early in the product development process, and carry out virtual testing, simulating everything from structural integrity and pressure optimization to failure analysis, through multi-scale and multi-physics simulation, to meet industry standards. Being able to track all physical assets and systems, and capture all related information, will help to prevent issues during installation and operation, reduce costs, minimize downtime, improve worker safety and more.
Scaling up green hydrogen production
Green hydrogen targets set out by the likes of the European Union and the United Nations will continue to drive renewable energy capacity globally and help to bring down the associated costs of green hydrogen production. The UN Green Hydrogen Catapult initiative, for example, is almost doubling its goal for green electrolyzers from 25 gigawatts in 2020 to 45 gigawatts by 2027.
Aside from industry cooperation and funding, the industry also needs the digital capabilities to drive product development efficiencies. Companies like McPhy Energy are increasing the competitiveness of their electrolyzers and low-carbon hydrogen refueling stations by managing all their processes on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud. This allows them to:
- Standardize processes and design and simulation applications
- Centralize data and project management
- Facilitate collaboration internally and with suppliers worldwide.
- Improve electrolyzer performance, quality and safety
By managing its product lifecycles within the 3DEXPERIENCE platform and virtually modelling its manufacturing processes, McPhy expects to reduce time to market and optimize the performance of its equipment.
As the world continues to shift away from using fossil fuels, innovation in electrolyzer technologies will become even more critical to help grow the commercial availability of emerging electrolysis designs and encourage widespread adoption of green hydrogen.
“The pipeline for green hydrogen projects is on track for a halving of electrolyzer cost before 2030,” said Dr Emanuele Taibi, head of Power Sector Transformation Strategies at the International Renewable Energy Agency, in an interview with the World Economic Forum. “This, combined with large projects located where the best renewable resources are, can lead to competitive green hydrogen to be available at scale in the next 5 to 10 years.”
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