08 April 2022

Hydrogen - an integral part of the energy transition

We are undergoing a quiet revolution in the way energy is captured, stored and used – the energy transition. This is being driven by many technological innovations and giving rise to what will become a new normal. The use of Hydrogen will be a big part of that and here at Tata steel we are at the forefront of some of the technology which will enable the new Hydrogen Economy.

Tata Steel H2 Hydrogen improvements

Why is Hydrogen the buzz-word of the moment?

There is no doubt that climate change is with us and the international effort now is to minimise it’s extent and impact. This means that over the coming years and into the middle of the 21st Century, drastic reductions in CO2 emissions will be required. The difficulty that humanity faces is how to do this, while at the same time maintaining a high standard of living for an ever-growing global population, in the context of the huge technological advances which have been made over the past 200 years.

Hydrogen is one of a number of technologies which could hold the key to maintaining this balance.  Burning Hydrogen produces nothing but water – perhaps the most innocent of by-products – and so Hydrogen promises to be a clean heat source, whether in industrial processes, for clean combustion engines or domestic heating. 

With such clear, clean credentials, why isn’t Hydrogen already in widespread use? Unlike fossil fuels, you can’t just dig Hydrogen out of the ground. And unlike solar or wind energy, it’s not just about harnessing what is already there. Hydrogen is effectively an energy store – Hydrogen needs to first be produced, then stored and transported to where it is required. In the past, this has made Hydrogen too expensive for most applications, but as technologies advance and we drive away from the use of fossil fuels, Hydrogen will become a large part of the energy mix in everyday use.

In both private and public sectors, decarbonization strategies pointing towards 2030, 2040 and 2050 are being progressed at pace. And Hydrogen clearly forms an integral part of these. The UK government, for example, recently published it’s “UK Hydrogen Strategy” paper, indicating that from a virtually standing start today, Hydrogen will make up between 20% and 35% of the UK energy mix by 2050. 

Real growth in the use of Hydrogen as an energy source is not predicted to take off until at least 2030, but that means that the hard work has to start today to put in place the infrastructure to produce, store and transport Hydrogen in the new “Hydrogen Economy.” 


So what will be required for the Hydrogen Economy to get established?

There is still some uncertainty about the best means to generate Hydrogen with many different routes being referred to with terms such as “Grey Hydrogen”, “Blue Hydrogen”, “Green Hydrogen” and virtually every shade in between. 
At the moment, most Hydrogen is made from methane (natural gas) in a chemical reaction which produces CO2 as a by-product. An intermediate step will be to continue production in this way, but utilising carbon capture technologies to capture the CO2 emissions and store them safely away.

But in the quest to reduce CO2 emissions, this won’t be the long-term solution. The end-point will almost certainly be to use renewable sources of electricity to produce Hydrogen from electrolysis of water. However, the technology to do this at scale is not yet proven and the amount of renewable electricity required is far more than current capacity. So there will be intermediate technologies used which may not be as “Green” but will pave the way and kick-start the Hydrogen Economy.

Irrespective of how Hydrogen is produced, it then needs to be stored and transported to wherever it is to be used. Hydrogen production will undoubtedly happen in large clusters, potentially offshore (to make use of electricity from offshore wind farms). Hydrogen use is likely to be in three main applications:

•    Transport – although battery-electric may be the predominant form of power for cars of the future, hydrogen is likely to see more use in commercial vehicles and for shipping. This will require an infrastructure of Hydrogen filling stations, but as it will be primarily for commercial vehicles, this will be less widespread than the current oil-based network.
•    Domestic heating – it is anticipated that Hydrogen could either partially or fully replace natural gas within domestic heating, using the same distribution network, potentially (at least initially) with a blended supply. Much of the network will be capable for this switch, although there may be parts of the existing network which will require replacement. 
•    Industrial uses – Hydrogen has many uses in industry already, but alongside these is likely to replace natural gas for heating and will start to see use in new ways, including Hydrogen-based steel-making. Industrial users of Hydrogen are likely to form geographical clusters or hubs and distribution, at least in the early stages, will be managed within these hubs.

The current UK infrastructure for natural gas consists of a high pressure backbone network, plus distribution networks amounting to almost 300,000km of pipes. Up to 20% of this network could require upgrading to carry Hydrogen or a hydrogen-rich blend, probably over the period of 2025 to 2040.


What is this going to mean for Tata Steel?

Tata Steel will potentially be a large user of Hydrogen. Steel-making is a carbon-intensive process and the coming decades will see a big shift in the way steel is made, potentially using Hydrogen to make primary iron from iron ore.

Hydrogen is also likely to be increasingly used in combustion plant for heating and processing steel. Tata Steel will adopt the best technology for decarbonization at each of our assets and we are already involved in industrial clusters to make use of Hydrogen.

However, while Tata Steel may be a user of Hydrogen, our biggest impact on the Hydrogen Economy will come from our products. Tata Steel make a wide range of steel products which may be used in support of the new Hydrogen infrastructure. The most tangible of these is gas transmission pipe. 


Do we need new types of steel for Hydrogen transmission?

As the Hydrogen transmission industry is still in very early days, the standards have not yet been set. Fundamentally, Hydrogen transport networks will need to perform in very much the same way as existing natural gas networks, so in most respects the requirements will be similar. 

The main concern that is often voiced about Hydrogen transport is the potential for Hydrogen induced embrittlement. This is a known failure mode of some oil pipelines, whereby hydrogen sulphide within some so-called “Sour” oil mixtures can react with certain impurities in the steel line pipe, eventually leading to embrittlement. 

Modern steels with a fine, homogeneous microstructure are generally much less susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement than some of the historically common grades and given that molecular Hydrogen is far less active in this mechanism than hydrogen sulphide, they are expected to be more-than capable for this new application.

So the standards are still not set, but it seems that the demands of Hydrogen transmission are not too different from other gas transport and so any changes in steel grades will be minimal. 


This is all in the future – what are Tata Steel doing now to make this happen?

At Tata Steel, we are keen to ensure that we are well positioned to serve the emerging demand for steel line pipes for Hydrogen transmission. Technically, we are in the process of testing our steel pipes under likely hydrogen transmission scenarios. We have built a unique hydrogen electrolytic cell within our R&D labs to perform this testing, in collaboration with the University of Swansea. This facility will be used to provide assurance against whatever standards emerge.

At the same time, we are in discussion with both private and public sector bodies in the UK and elsewhere to ensure that we are able to tailor our capabilities to the emerging demands of the Hydrogen Economy.

We may not see Hydrogen coming into our houses for many years yet, but the foundations for the Hydrogen Economy are being built now and we can be proud to say that our steel pipes will be an integral part of this essential infrastructure.






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