Blue Hydrogen – An overview

What is Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant sources of gas contributing approximately 75% of the gas in our solar system. Hydrogen is found in various things including light, water, air, plants, and animals; however, it is often combined with other elements. The most familiar combination is with oxygen to make water. Hydrogen gas is a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas which is lighter than air. As it is far lighter than air this means it rises in our atmosphere, meaning it is not naturally found at ground level, but instead must be created. This is done by separating it from other elements and collecting the gas. 

What is Blue Hydrogen?

Blue hydrogen has been described as ‘low-carbon hydrogen’ due to the Steam Reforming Process (SMR) not requiring the release of greenhouse gases. Blue hydrogen is produced from non-renewable energy sources when natural gas is divided into hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide through either Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) or Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR), the CO2 is then captured and stored. This process captures greenhouse gasses, thereby mitigating any impacts on the environment. SMR is the most common method for producing bulk hydrogen and contributes most of the world’s production. This method uses a reformer, which reacts steam at an elevated temperature and pressure with methane as well as a nickel catalyst resulting in production of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide is then combined with more steam resulting in more hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The process of ‘capturing’ is completed through Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS). Alternatively, autothermal reforming uses oxygen and carbon dioxide or steam to react with methane to form hydrogen. The downside of these two methods is that they produce carbon dioxide as a by-product, so carbon capture and storage (CCS) is essential to trap and store this carbon. 

The Scale of Hydrogen Production

The natural gas reforming technology that is available today lends itself to the industrial manufacture of hydrogen on a large scale. A world-class methane reformer can produce 200 million standard cubic feet (MSCF) of hydrogen per day. That is the equivalent amount of hydrogen to support an industrial area or refuel 10,000 lorries. Approximately 150 of these would be needed to completely replace the UK natural gas supply, and we use 2.1% of the world’s natural gas. 

Industrial scale production of Blue Hydrogen is already possible today, however, improvements in production and efficiency would lead to a further reduction in costs. In most countries who produce hydrogen, Blue Hydrogen is currently being produced at a lower cost than green, which is still in the earlier stages of its development. With the additionally arrangements of CO2 policy and hydrogen incentives, the demand for hydrogen will continue to rise and with this it will gain in traction, although this would currently require both production technologies for hydrogen to be fully used. 

Advantages of Blue Hydrogen?

By producing Blue Hydrogen without the need to generate electricity needed for the production of green hydrogen, Blue Hydrogen could help to conserve scarce land as well as accelerate the shift towards low-carbon energy without hinderance related to land requirements. 

Currently Blue hydrogen is less expensive compared to Green Hydrogen. With mainstream estimates of Blue Hydrogen production costing around $1.50 per kg or less when using lower-cost natural gas. Comparatively, Green Hydrogen is costs more than two times that amount today, with reductions requiring significant improvements in electrolysis and very low-cost electricity. 

Disadvantages of Blue Hydrogen?

Natural gas prices are on the increase. US researchers when looking into environmental impact over its entire lifecycle of Blue Hydrogen have found that methane emissions produced when the fossil natural gas is extracted and burned are much less than Blue Hydrogen due to manufacturing efficiencies. With more methane needing to be extracted in order to make Blue Hydrogen. As well as it requiring to pass through reformers, pipelines, and ships, of which poses more opportunities for leaks. This research indicates, making Blue Hydrogen is currently 20% worse for the climate than just using fossil gas. 

The process of making Blue Hydrogen also requires a lot of energy. For every unit of heat in the natural gas at the start of the process, only 70-75% of that potential heat remains in the hydrogen product. In other words, if the hydrogen is used to heat a building, 25% more natural gas is required to produce Blue Hydrogen than if it was used directly for heat. 

Is hydrogen the future?

The potential of this initiative could increase the use of hydrogen, which may help decarbonise the area’s industrial sector. Hydrogen would be delivered to customers to help reduce emissions from domestic heating, industrial processes and transportation, and CO2 would be captured and shipped to a secure offshore storage location. This could also attract significant investment in the community, support existing employment, and stimulate the creation of local jobs. In the end, if the Blue Hydrogen industry is to contribute a meaningful role in decarbonisation, it will need to build and operate infrastructure that delivers on its full emission reduction potential.