A look into the technical challenges associated with the Clean Hydrogen Economy

Vineeth Ram

Chief Sustainability Officer

The “Hydrogen Insights 2023” report published by the Hydrogen Council recently, highlights the transformative energy shift towards hydrogen and its potential in decarbonization. The report reveals the growing momentum of hydrogen, with global production capacity doubling since 2020. Hydrogen plays a crucial role in the energy transition, particularly in transportation, industry and power generation. Falling production costs and scaling up of facilities are making hydrogen more economically viable. Asia and Europe lead in hydrogen deployment, driven by ambitious strategies and investments. Renewable or clean hydrogen, produced through electrolysis, shows great promise for a carbon-neutral future. Governments worldwide are formulating policies and investing in hydrogen-related projects. Despite challenges, collaboration, innovation and supportive policies are key to realizing the full potential of hydrogen.

Clean Hydrogen Market Opportunity

The market opportunity for clean or renewable hydrogen is significant, with potential applications in transportation, industrial processes and energy storage. Clean hydrogen, produced from renewable energy sources or processes that capture carbon emissions, can be used as a zero-emission fuel for vehicles, a clean fuel or feedstock in industries and as a means of storing excess renewable energy. The market for clean hydrogen is expanding rapidly due to supportive policies, investments in infrastructure and technological advancements. However, challenges such as high production costs and limited infrastructure remain.

According to the “Hydrogen Insights 2023” report, clean hydrogen production is projected to experience significant growth in the next decade. The capacity for clean hydrogen is expected to increase from 4.2 million metric tons per year to 25 million metric tons per year by 2030 which represents a nine-fold increase with a compound annual growth rate of 29%.

Despite the market potential and significant promise for a more sustainable and low-carbon future, there are technical challenges in clean hydrogen production, storage and transportation that need to be addressed. OLI, as a provider of solutions for complex chemical processes, is interested in tackling these challenges and supporting the effective production, transportation and storage of clean hydrogen.

Technology Challenges with Clean Hydrogen Production:  

  1. Cost-effective production: Developing cost-effective methods for hydrogen production is a challenge that requires advancements in technologies like electrolysis and biomass gasification. Electrolysis, in particular, faces five technical challenges. First, optimizing efficiency to reduce energy consumption is crucial for cost-effective production. Second, developing durable electrode materials is essential to ensure continuous operation. Third, improving the performance and stability of catalysts used in electrolysis can lower costs. Fourth, scaling up and establishing efficient manufacturing processes are necessary for economies of scale. Lastly, cost-effective materials and system integration, including membranes and separators, are important for efficient electrolysis systems. Overcoming these challenges is vital for achieving affordable and efficient hydrogen production.
  2. Scalability: Scaling up clean or renewable hydrogen production to meet increasing demand presents several technical challenges. First, ensuring a reliable and sufficient supply of renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind, is crucial. Second, improving the efficiency and capacity of electrolyzers, the primary technology for hydrogen production, is necessary for larger-scale production. Catalyst development, optimizing electrolyzer membranes, efficient heat management and seamless system integration are key challenges that need to be addressed. Establishing a robust infrastructure for production, storage and distribution of clean hydrogen is also challenging. Additionally, resource availability and cost reduction through technological advancements and economies of scale are essential. Lowering the cost of scaling up clean hydrogen production requires improvements in electrolyzer efficiency, durability, scalability, catalyst materials, manufacturing processes, integration with renewable energy and material/component costs. Overcoming these challenges can enhance the efficiency, scalability and affordability of clean hydrogen production, promoting its widespread adoption in various sectors.
  3. Energy efficiency: Improving energy efficiency in clean hydrogen production is crucial for reducing costs and enhancing sustainability. Key challenges include enhancing electrolyzer efficiency through cell design and conductivity optimization, efficient heat management through cooling systems and heat recovery, integrating with renewable energy sources to overcome intermittency issues, developing advanced materials for electrodes and membranes and optimizing process integration and automation. Addressing these challenges will contribute to higher energy efficiency in hydrogen production, reducing energy consumption and associated costs. It will also enhance the overall sustainability of clean hydrogen production, supporting its role as a key solution in the transition towards a more sustainable energy future.
  4. Storage and transportation: The storage and transportation of hydrogen present crucial challenges that need to be addressed for its widespread adoption as an energy carrier. Key challenges include developing efficient and safe storage methods, such as high-pressure tanks and solid-state storage systems, to overcome hydrogen’s low energy density. Establishing a robust infrastructure, including refueling stations, pipelines and storage facilities, is essential for effective distribution and utilization. Safety considerations related to hydrogen’s flammability require the development of protocols, leak detection systems and proper handling procedures. Efficient compression and liquefaction technologies are needed for large-scale transportation, addressing energy-intensive processes and minimizing energy losses. Furthermore, ensuring material compatibility and minimizing degradation of storage and transportation systems are vital for long-term reliability. Overcoming these challenges will contribute to the effective storage and transportation of hydrogen, enabling its utilization across various sectors as a clean and sustainable energy solution.
  5. Carbon emissions: While clean hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, the production methods must also minimize or eliminate associated carbon emissions. Advancements in carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies are necessary to achieve truly carbon-neutral hydrogen production.

Corrosion and mineral scaling in hydrogen production

In clean hydrogen production, corrosion, mineral scaling and fouling pose significant technical challenges that need to be addressed to ensure the efficient and reliable operation of hydrogen production systems. The following are the most important challenges associated with these issues:

  • Corrosion in hydrogen production systems can lead to equipment degradation, leaks and potential safety hazards. Hydrogen, especially in the presence of impurities, can promote corrosion in materials such as steel, pipelines and storage tanks. Developing corrosion-resistant materials and implementing appropriate corrosion prevention measures, such as protective coatings or cathodic protection, is crucial to mitigate the risk of corrosion.

Corrosion-related challenges in electrolyzers during clean hydrogen production are significant and require attention for efficient and durable operation. Key challenges include electrode degradation due to corrosion, necessitating the selection of corrosion-resistant materials for components like electrodes, current collectors and separators. The presence of acidic or alkaline environments in electrolyzers calls for maintaining chemical stability and optimizing pH levels to mitigate corrosion. Impurities in the feedwater can accelerate corrosion rates, requiring effective purification and filtration systems. Corrosion risks are heightened under high current densities, necessitating careful optimization of operating conditions and electrolyzer design to balance efficient hydrogen production with corrosion prevention. Addressing these challenges will contribute to the longevity and performance of electrolyzers, ensuring their effectiveness in clean hydrogen production.

  • Mineral scaling occurs when minerals or salts present in the feedwater or process streams precipitate and accumulate on surfaces. Scaling reduces heat transfer efficiency, obstructs fluid flow and hampers system performance. Effective water treatment methods, including filtration, softening, or reverse osmosis, are necessary to remove or reduce mineral impurities and prevent scaling.
  • Fouling refers to the accumulation of organic or inorganic substances on equipment surfaces, such as heat exchangers or membranes. Fouling reduces productivity, increases maintenance requirements and impairs system efficiency. Identifying fouling mechanisms, developing effective cleaning techniques and implementing preventive measures, such as filtration or chemical treatments, are crucial for minimizing fouling challenges.
  • Corrosion and fouling often interact and exacerbate each other’s effects. For instance, fouling layers can trap corrosive agents and accelerate corrosion, while corrosion products can act as nucleation sites for fouling deposition. Understanding the complex interactions between corrosion and fouling and developing integrated mitigation strategies are essential to address both challenges simultaneously.
  • Monitoring and Maintenance: Regular monitoring, inspection and maintenance of hydrogen production systems are critical to identify and mitigate corrosion, scaling and fouling issues. Implementing robust monitoring techniques, such as corrosion sensors or online fouling detection systems, helps detect and address these challenges in a timely manner.

Corrosion and mineral scaling in hydrogen transportation and storage

In hydrogen transportation and storage, corrosion, mineral scaling and fouling present crucial technical challenges that must be addressed to ensure safe and efficient operations. The following are the most important challenges associated with these issues:

  • Corrosion in hydrogen transportation and storage infrastructure can lead to material degradation, structural integrity issues and potential safety hazards. Identifying corrosion-resistant materials, implementing corrosion protection measures and monitoring corrosion rates are essential to ensure the long-term reliability of pipelines, storage tanks, valves and other components.
  • Mineral scaling in pipelines and storage vessels occurs when minerals or salts present in the transported or stored hydrogen form deposits on surfaces. Scaling reduces flow capacity, increases pressure drops and hampers operational efficiency. Implementing effective water treatment methods, such as filtration or chemical treatments, is critical to minimize mineral impurities and prevent scaling.
  • Fouling refers to the accumulation of organic or inorganic substances on surfaces, including pipelines, valves and storage infrastructure. Fouling can decrease transport efficiency, restrict flow rates and necessitate frequent cleaning and maintenance. Developing effective fouling prevention strategies, such as filtration, coatings, or periodic cleaning protocols, is necessary to mitigate fouling challenges.
  • Corrosion and fouling can interact synergistically, exacerbating their respective impacts. For example, fouling layers can trap corrosive agents and accelerate corrosion, while corrosion products can act as nucleation sites for fouling deposition. Understanding and managing the complex interactions between corrosion and fouling are vital for integrated mitigation strategies.
  • Selecting materials that are compatible with hydrogen and resistant to corrosion, scaling and fouling is crucial for transportation and storage systems. Materials need to withstand the corrosive nature of hydrogen, resist scaling tendencies and minimize fouling deposition. Thorough material selection and testing are necessary to ensure the long-term integrity and reliability of infrastructure.

Selecting corrosion-resistant materials is crucial for hydrogen transportation infrastructure. Preventing hydrogen diffusion and developing barrier coatings are challenges. Purification methods are necessary to minimize impurity effects. Ensuring structural integrity under high pressures is a challenge. Welding techniques and joining methods that resist corrosion are needed for maintaining integrity.  Addressing mineral scaling and fouling challenges in hydrogen transport requires thorough purification of hydrogen, selection of compatible materials, implementation of preventive maintenance practices and regular cleaning procedures. By managing these challenges, hydrogen transport systems can operate efficiently, maintain optimal flow rates and ensure the integrity and reliability of the transport infrastructure.

Hydrogen embrittlement and material compatibility are critical considerations for storage systems. Passivation techniques and protective coatings help mitigate corrosion. Purification techniques ensure hydrogen purity, reducing corrosion rates. Stress corrosion cracking caused by hydrogen requires understanding and mitigation strategies in storage system design. Addressing these corrosion-related challenges requires research and development efforts to identify corrosion-resistant materials, develop surface treatment methods, improve purification techniques and design storage systems with corrosion mitigation strategies. Ensuring the long-term integrity and safety of hydrogen storage is essential for the successful utilization of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier.

Addressing these technical challenges requires a comprehensive approach involving corrosion engineering, materials science, water treatment technologies and monitoring systems. Collaborative research, development and industry standards are necessary to develop corrosion-resistant materials, effective water treatment methods, fouling mitigation strategies and reliable monitoring techniques. By managing corrosion, scaling and fouling challenges, hydrogen transportation and storage systems can operate safely, efficiently and contribute to the widespread adoption of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier.

Summary: OLI delivers industry leading process modeling and simulation software-based solutions to optimize the design and operations of complex chemical processes in harsh industrial applications. Our traditional markets have been oil & gas, chemicals, mining,  power generation and water treatment where we deliver highly rigorous and accurate solutions to mitigate the risk of corrosion, mineral scaling and fouling to over 500 global clients.  We are rapidly expanding our capabilities to address decarbonization and energy transition with investments in carbon capture, transport and storage, hydrogen economy, geothermal energy and critical materials processing as well as battery recycling. Contact us here to see how our simulation capabilities can address your immediate needs or browse our website for more information.