Air Liquide : Blue Hydrogen : Green Hydrogen

Hydrogen is once again in the news, but it’s not renewable. And in addition, its uses are not green, either.

Air Liquide, operating as ALAR – Air Liquide Arabia – has announced the start of commercial supplies of hydrogen, produced at YASREF, via a pipeline network within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A Reuters article, clearly based on an Air Liquide press release, reads, “Pressure has mounted on the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers to reduce their carbon emissions as concern mounts among policy-makers, investors and the general public about their impact on global warming. Many in industry are turning to hydrogen gas, which can be used to fuel vehicles and as a means to store green energy, as part of the solution.”

This all sounds great, but there are several things wrong with this picture.

The first catch is that the hydrogen in this case is not going to be used to fuel vehicles, or store green energy. As it says in the article, “Air Liquide Arabia (ALAR) on Tuesday began pumping hydrogen […] and will supply a Saudi Aramco refinery as the kingdom seeks to shift towards cleaner fuel. […] The Saudi Aramco Mobil Refinery (SAMREF), a joint venture between oil giant Saudi Aramco and a subsidiary of U.S. oil major ExxonMobil, will be the first company to use the Yanbu hydrogen grid […]”

So, the hydrogen here is going to be used to assist in the processing and refining of crude petroleum oil : such processes as hydrodesulfurisation, hydrotreating, hydrocracking.

The second nick is that the hydrogen is being made from Natural Gas, not renewable electricity with water. The Yanbu plant is a giant Steam Methane Reforming operation : “Large-scale hydrogen production unit in Yanbu : One of our many achievements in the region is the successful commissioning of a large-scale Steam Methane Reformer unit for the YASREF refinery (in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia), with a total hydrogen production capacity of 340,000 Nm3/hour. This is the first time in the Middle East that the hydrogen production for such a large refinery has been outsourced to a third party.”

Large gas projects, where the economics make sense, are normally gargantuan, leviathan, plants, covering large areas of land, and requiring high volumes of materials. This means that even plant that produce 100 times less than the Air Liquide operation at YASREF are highly centralised and capital-intensive.

Hydrogen plants are therefore a major capital commitment, and building these gigantic SMRs means that there is a strong lock-in to Natural Gas, a fossil fuel.

Air Liquide does say that they have a commitment to going green, however :-

“In practical terms, Air Liquide has made a commitment to produce at least 50% of the hydrogen necessary for these applications through carbon-free processes by 2020 by combining :
*   Biogas reforming
*   The use of renewable energies, through water electrolysis
*   The use of technologies for the capture and upgrading of carbon emitted during the process of producing hydrogen from natural gas”

2020. That’s now. I wonder how Air Liquide are doing with their capture and “upgrading” of carbon.

I haven’t seen any actual numbers yet, and there doesn’t appear to be a line in their annual accounts about this budget line, but warm words are being reported about cost reduction. Here’s the Hydrogen Council report “Path to hydrogen competitiveness : A cost perspective : 20 January 2020”.

Renewable Hydrogen will get ridiculously cheap, especially as renewable electricity becomes outrageously over-supplied.

I hope Air Liquide won’t come to rue the day they agreed to build the Yanbu project.

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