In the mid-2020, the European Commission published “A Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe.” The Brussels-based institution hopes it will be hydrogen alongside renewables that enable the European countries to build a low-carbon economy and consequently minimise environmental pollution.
It is expected that the generating capacity of electrolysers across the EU will have surpassed 40 gigawatts by 2030, which is a little less than 4% of the total power generation of 2018. The same amount of energy will be imported from Russia and elsewhere in the world.
Some analysts say that Russia should backdoor its way into the hydrogen industry, design process trains and start exporting nature’s lightest gas. It may seem reasonable as, according to supporters of green energy, hydrocarbons will soon be of no use. Provided it happens, the Russian economy, overly dependent on oil & gas revenues, will be in a deep decline; unless we succeed in reorienting it to producing hydrogen.
Yet there is another opinion. Experts with profound knowledge of hydrogen solutions claim that the existing technologies – be it electrolysis or production from methane – are too costly to consider the gas a future global energy source. Neither households nor business consumers will manage to pay that much for electricity. Besides, it is not really clear how this explosive gas should be stored and transported.
The pipeline system currently in use will not suffice. Unlike methane, hydrogen is more reactive and will cause significant damage, primarily to weld joints and areas around them.
About 85 million tons of hydrogen are consumed worldwide, mostly by the oil refining and chemical industries. In comparison, the demand on the part of the energy and transport sectors is low. Although cars, buses, and trains running on hydrogen fuel are no longer something totally unheard of, for now, they are only prototypes. These test models will not be manufactured on an industrial scale either – it is too expensive.
Meanwhile, less global projects have some potential. For instance, Russian scientists are working on new train models, which will operate on fuel hydrogen cells. Such trains may have demand in places lacking the infrastructure to transmit electricity and subsequently replace diesel-powered locomotives.
“We believe that hydrogen won’t become a global source of energy. However, it may be one of the tools that humankind needs to solve environmental problems. Our civilisation is facing a serious challenge – we must significantly reduce the anthropogenic burden on nature but remain committed to sustainable development,” says Georgy Buslaev, Head of the Arctic Competence Centre in St. Petersburg Mining University.
“Through research, we aim to learn how to achieve both goals simultaneously. One of our research areas is related to improving technologies for hydrogen production, storage, and transportation.”
“These studies are being conducted with grants provided by Hazret Sovmen. He is a business investor who had literally revolutionised the gold-mining industry long before his presidential term in the Republic of Adygea began. This man knows that science is the driver of Russia’s socio-economic progress. Fostering science requires encouraging young researchers to focus on academic pursuits,” adds Buslaev.
Buslaev notes that many Western-European policymakers state that complete abandonment of oil and natural gas consumption is a prerequisite for reaching carbon neutrality. This is not a realistic task, though; it will take decades before green technologies can fully replace fossil fuels as the foundation of national economies.
It may even happen as late as at the end of the 21st century. Hence, scientists looking for alternatives to hydrocarbons should also look for ways to reduce harmful emissions from the extraction, transportation, and use of hydrocarbon fuels.
One of the most acute environmental issues attributable to the fuel & energy sector arises from the flaring of associated petroleum gas (APG). It is a gas by-product that is released when oil is being pumped out of a well. Earlier anywhere around the world, the gas was burnt off in flares, leading to the emissions of CO2 and other hazardous substances. The situation has been changing now, but the negative environmental impact is still very high.
As surprising as it seems but exporting hydrogen, or more specifically, its derivatives, can make the difference. One of the possible solutions is being elaborated by the Mining University’s researchers. They are involved in modelling process chains based on capturing APG at the polar oil fields and transporting it to gas chemical facilities situated near the Northern Sea Route. Therein the gas is transformed into some kind of a semi-product for producing hydrogen.
“Storing and transporting hydrogen is an ambitious task that requires breakthrough scientific solutions. Letting it flow via an existing pipeline just won’t work because the hydrogen molecule is so small it can permeate the crystal lattice of steel. Making any guesses on how long a pipeline transferring hydrogen will last isn’t really useful accordingly. In contrast, technologies for transporting bound hydrogen look much more promising,” explains Buslaev.
“I am talking here about shipping natural and, for that matter, associated gases to a gas chemical complex to synthesise methanol, ammonia, and cyclohexane. If they are then brought in to a storage & handling facility by tanker, they can be further used to produce hydrogen and other valuable components. By implementing a project of this kind, we will significantly reduce carbon emissions caused by hydrocarbon extraction. We will also ensure that both European and Asian consumers are provided with an in-demand energy carrier,” adds Buslaev.
The university’s research team aims to adapt extraction in the Arctic to what low-carbon energy requires yet produce high-margin goods, helping build a new economy. It does not mean that Arctic oil and gas will be abandoned altogether. Still, the share of primary raw materials in Russia’s export profile should be decreasing, with high-added-value products taking over eventually. Hydrogen derivatives may be one way to achieve this goal, thereby minimising man’s impact on the environment and increasing budget revenues.
“We definitely don’t have to give up on oil & gas production, on which some Western decision-makers insist. Demand for hydrocarbons will keep growing, with most of the growth ensured by Asian consumers. Hydrogen won’t ever wholly replace them; however, stricter rules are coming into play on the global markets. We need to take that into account. One area for improvement is developing renewable technologies in regions where the climate favours doing so. In this connection, hydrogen can actually prove itself quite useful.
As is known, the main disadvantage of wind turbines and solar panels, which drastically limits their potential, is the lack of affordable technology for accumulating energy on an industrial scale. Furthermore, current storage systems are highly susceptible to low atmospheric temperatures, making them, as a result, hard to use. By producing hydrogen from surpluses of flow energy, we will partially solve the problem of energy accumulation,” continues Georgy Buslaev.
Last December, Vladimir Putin declared that the country’s future is directly linked to the Arctic and its development and particularly emphasised the role of mineral extraction in the region. Gazprom Neft intends to raise its total production output coming from the polar region to 30% in the foreseeable future already. Rosneft and Novatek are also heavily investing in the projects in that area, specifically in infrastructure construction.
In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia’s Far North will doubtlessly turn into a region generating a significant part of the country’s incomes. The practical challenge to be solved by business and scientific communities is how to manufacture marketable products and lower the carbon footprint at the same time. One of the tools to accomplish this goal is undoubtedly hydrogen technologies. That said, it is unlikely they will ever become a source of much importance to the global energy industry. The gas is too expensive to produce, corrosive to metals, and most importantly, highly flammable. Whether science will find a way to offset these significant drawbacks and when, if it ever will, is, for now, an open question.