Interview Earth Technology Can Decarbonize Existing Hydrogen and Syngas Plants
Developed by Technip Energies and Clariant Catalysts, the enhanced annular reforming tube for hydrogen (Earth) technology is a recuperative reforming technology which helps to lower CO2 emissions and produce energy efficient hydrogen. In an interview with PROCESS Worldwide, Stefan Gebert, Product Manager, Clariant Catalysts as well as Stéphane Walspurger, Product Development & New Technologies Manager, Technip Energies jointly explain this technology along with its numerous advantages.
Clariant & Technip Energies’ innovative ‘Earth’ technology claims to produce energy efficient blue H2. How does the technology function for delivering low-carbon hydrogen?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: Technip Energies’ and Clariant’s ‘Earth’ technology is a heat recuperative reformer concept that combines a concentric tubular assembly with a tailor-made structured catalyst in the steam methane reformer tubes. The ground-breaking solution improves the efficiency of hydrogen production by utilizing the high-level heat for the steam reforming reaction and therefore reduces the net specific energy required for the production of H2 compared to traditional technologies.
Compared to the performance of a standard reformer with traditional catalysts, Earth decreases energy consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 10 %, at equal hydrogen production rate. Therefore, Earth is an outstanding technology choice for achieving high-carbon capture at low-energy penalty for blue hydrogen production when carbon dioxide utilization or storage is feasible. By reducing the firing duty, Earth helps attain low-carbon dioxide content in the flue gas of the reformer while capturing the CO2 gas on the reformate at relatively high pressures.
An acronym for ‘enhanced annular reforming tube for hydrogen’, the Earth technology is a drop-in solution that can be installed into existing or new reformer tubes, with the catalyst loaded in the outer annular space. This unique setup results in superior heat recovery, higher throughput and significantly lower pressure drop compared to conventional catalyst and catalytic tube layout.
The novel catalyst design offers low pressure drop, maximum activity, and improved heat transfer. Due to its outstanding stability and mechanical robustness, the catalyst delivers excellent performance despite the thermal and mechanical stress of the reforming process and the reduced volume of the Earth catalyst bed.
It has been revealed in a few expert studies that the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for blue hydrogen is only 9 % - 12 % less than for grey hydrogen, how can this technology help to change this scenario?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: Hydrogen production from fossil fuels has been used for decades for multiple applications, amongst which ammonia synthesis for fertilizers, methanol synthesis, hydrogenation of hydrocarbons for refining. Next to natural gas, off-gases that can’t be easily valorized otherwise are usually feedstock for hydrogen production units selected to achieve lowest cost of hydrogen production. With the need to decarbonize industrial processes, the quantity of CO2 produced in the conversion of fossil fuels and off-gases becomes a significant parameter in the unit cost of hydrogen.
Furthermore, when natural gas is used on purpose for hydrogen production, the emissions related to production, transport and conversion steps upstream the hydrogen production as well as downstream compression, transport of both hydrogen and CO2 also need to be considered in the quantification of the degree of decarbonization of hydrogen. Relevant studies based on actual measured emissions on the production and transport infrastructure show that natural gas fugitive emissions are maintained low when the regulations and incentives are in place to minimize these emissions*.
With the use of recuperative technology such as Earth, the design of the steam reformer may achieve maximum hydrocarbon to hydrogen conversion while ensuring no excess steam production. In other words, Earth allows for achieving very low fossil feedstock consumption per unit hydrogen produced, and therefore facilitates significantly reduced CO2 production per unit hydrogen produced.
Considering the upstream inefficiencies, it is relatively easy to deduce that Earth allows to reduce the carbon footprint of hydrogen, by minimizing the fossil feedstock consumption, their associated emissions and the amount of energy needed for CC(U)S. The recuperative reforming technologies are one of the key tools in the design toolbox for designing steam reformers with up to 99 % CO2 capture rate.
*C. Bauer et al, On climate impacts of blue hydrogen production, Sustainable Energy Fuel, 2022, 6, 66-75
What are the other advantages of this technology?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: Earth is a drop-in solution that can be designed for existing steam reformers and for grassroots steam reformers. For existing steam reformers next to the maximum possible reduction of energy consumption and CO2 emissions, producers may opt to increase plant throughput and capacity by up to 20 percent while maintaining their current costs and process conditions. This capacity increment may be combined with the implementation of a CO2 capture strategy on the steam reformer, with the aim to abate the CO2 emissions of the reformer operation and to produce incremental amounts of decarbonized hydrogen.
Another benefit is enabled by the less intense firing requirement that reduces mechanical stress on the reformer tube material and the outlet system. These critical components are exposed to less severe temperatures, extending their lifetime and reducing maintenance and replacement costs. As the reformer outlet system usually limits reforming intensity, the lower temperature in the outlet system enabled by Earth presents a step change for high conversion (low methane slip) and low steam-to-carbon ratio reforming. This can significantly lower operational costs and raise the energy efficiency of the steam reforming process.
How flexible is the technology in terms of the input materials used?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: The Earth technology is designed as a drop-in solution compatible with new or existing steam reformers tubes with inlet and outlet sections at opposing ends of the furnace, i.e. there are no modifications of the reformer catalyst tubes required. Its installation requires no additional plot space and installation time is comparable to a typical catalyst changeout. The tubes can be delivered preloaded with catalysts on request. This makes Earth a more flexible solution than U-shaped recuperative reformer tubes that are more challenging to integrate in existing reformers.
Also, the layout of the internals and catalyst can be tailored to the plant’s specific process conditions and production targets providing a high degree of flexibility in terms of design and operating conditions.
Finally, the lifetime of the catalyst is expected to be superior to the conventional packed ceramic shape, notably thanks to the ability of the structured catalyst to cope with the differential expansion between the reformer tube and the internals of Earth. While the ceramic shapes are known to undergo crushing due to bed settling followed by contraction of reformer tube ID in periods when the reformer is not in use, the operation with the Earth structure does not result in an essential pressure drop escalation over time.
How costly is the investment for integrating the Earth technology into an existing plant, and how much does it cost for a new plant? Please make a statement about the amortization periods.
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: For a new grassroot plant there are no additional costs of the Earth technology since the technology allows both for a reduction of steam reformer size as well as for a reduced investment for the carbon capture technologies (both process gas and/or flue gas carbon capture) as well as a reduced investment to achieve a hydrogen plant without steam export.
In general, as the Earth technology is highly customizable towards the client needs, the costs are such that the payback is typically within 1 to 2 years for revamps, depending on steam valorization, fuel costs and carbon tax for an energy savings scenario. Earth is not only a catalyst so a one-to-one comparison with other catalyst technologies is not applicable. It also brings additional benefits in terms of reduced operating costs as well as savings in both hydrocarbon consumption and carbon footprint.
When combining Earth with further decarbonization of the unit, the benefits increase significantly as the intrinsically reduced firing in the unit also reduces the additional investments related to decarbonization. For a capacity increase scenario, the Earth technology also enables a revamp with minimum modifications to the rest of the unit and thus has a very short return on investment compared to alternative solutions.
Is it possible to combine the catalyst with other steam-reforming technologies other than those of Technip Energies?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: Yes, as the Earth design can be optimized for specific customer needs, it can be applied as a direct drop-in solution for all existing reformer technologies using reformer tubes with an internal diameter larger than 4 inches (=100 mm) with a gas inlet at the top and an outlet at the bottom. Smaller diameters are feasible and require some additional checks and confirmations.
The Earth implementation is independent of the firing type of the reformer (top-fired, bottom-fired, side-fired or terrace wall fired). Earth may also be of significant added value in primary reformers with downstream secondary or autothermal reformers in ammonia or methanol production units that are considered for capacity increase or repurposing for blue ammonia or blue methanol.
Blue hydrogen projects are on the lookout for efficient technologies to further reduce their carbon emissions. Are you in talks with any companies/projects for your technology?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: The first two large projects have been carried out successfully, in the context of capacity increase of an existing unit in Europe and for a grassroot unit, part of the Repsol refinery expansion in Cartagena, Spain. There are multiple blue hydrogen prospects on the look-out where the Earth technology is discussed with clients as an attractive solution. This is a market that may grow in the short to mid-term. At this moment the companies and projects involved in these prospects are confidential and include several major industry players.
The Earth technology is considered in blue hydrogen plants both in grassroot applications as well as in revamp applications to convert an existing grey hydrogen asset into blue hydrogen. For grassroot applications, the technology allows for a reduced hydrocarbon consumption and thus a reduced captured CO2 flow reducing the downstream CC(U)S facility investments. Carbon capture rates of up to 99 % can be achieved.
In revamp applications, the Earth technology is expected to play a role in staged investments to achieve high carbon capture rates. It is evident that Earth can immediately reduce the carbon footprint by up to 10 % as a quick implementation with minimum impact to the rest of the unit. In parallel, by applying synergistic design changes as well as addition of a carbon capture unit a carbon capture rate up to 99 % and beyond can be achieved. Earth both reduces the further investment costs as well as the operating costs by reducing the overall hydrocarbon consumption.
Do you observe high market demand for the Earth technology?
Stefan Gebert and Stéphane Walspurger: We are convinced that Earth is an attractive technology to decarbonize existing hydrogen and syngas plants as well as for grassroots blue hydrogen applications. The rate of adoption has been really promising which enabled both Clariant and Technip Energies to implement and roll out their production capabilities, as well as the supply chain for serving the next customers. Further, two references have been delivered, which demonstrate the value proposition of Earth.
As the market for low carbon hydrogen develops next to the existing infrastructure and valuable assets such as steam reformers in refineries and petrochemical sites, many opportunities to tap into the potential of decarbonization of off-gases and natural gas-based feedstocks will feed the Earth pipeline for the coming decade. Consequently, we expect Earth to gain significant footprint in the global hydrogen production quickly. We can serve many plants with this innovative technology in the coming years, from small to world scale steam reformers.