Hydrogen at Achema Hydrogen at Achema: The Molecule of Endless Possibilities

From Dominik Stephan

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The chemical industry is leading the hydrogen race — no wonder that the light gas is also capturing the imagination at Achema. The mysterious green molecule of endless possibilities plays a decisive role at the leading trade fair for chemistry, the event organizers at Dechema believe.

The molecule of green dreams: without hydrogen, the defossilization of chemistry will not succeed.
The molecule of green dreams: without hydrogen, the defossilization of chemistry will not succeed.
(Source: © PhotoGranary - stock.adobe.com; Achema; [M]VCG )

The potential is limitless: Hydrogen can help to store electricity and to transport energy. It burns without CO2 emissions to form water vapor and can be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity. In addition, the lightest element in the periodic table can react further to form basic materials such as ammonia, ethylene and propylene, or help break the dependence on coal in steel and cement plants.

In theory, there are no limits for the miracle substance of defossilization — and yet, despite national hydrogen strategies, the big break­through is still to come. “Hydrogen is currently not yet a freely available commodity, but is produced locally as needed. Usually from fossil sources, e.g. via steam reforming,” explains Dr. Florian Ausfelder, topic spokesman for energy and climate at Dechema. The German energy agency DENA also estimates that around 95 percent of the hydrogen produced in Germany currently comes from natural gas.

The Chemistry is Right

This is not very climate-friendly: While electrolysis using emission-neutral electricity actually generates so-called “green” gas (i.e. a raw material that has no harmful effect on the climate), the “grey” hydrogen from the steam reformer produces around ten metric tons of CO2 per ton of hydrogen. It is clear that the brave new world of an emission-neutral H2 economy cannot be achieved with this. New plants, processes and rules are needed to enable the gas to realize its full potential.

This is especially an issue for the chemical industry, as hardly any other sector has such high hopes for hydrogen as the masters of molecules and reactions. From green ammonia synthesis to basic chemicals from waste gases, H2 plays a leading role in almost every defossilization vision.

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It’s no wonder that hydrogen is also the star at Achema 2022: “On the one hand, the trade fair can show the state of the art in technologies and, on the other, serve as a platform for the necessary discussions in the industry and provide impetus beyond that,” Ausfelder is convinced.

Dr. Björn Mathes, member of the board of Dechema-Ausstellungs-GmbH, the organizers of Achema, is of the same opinion: “The production, distribution and storage of green hydrogen in the required quantities require a new approach to cooperation and collaboration, but also new technologies. These can be found at Achema. Hydrogen is not a new topic here, but it is becoming much more relevant and: There will be no hydrogen future without the chemical process industry and its equipment and analogue manufacturers.”

Hydrogen Trade Fair Achema?

The respective innovations and projects are spread over the entire exhibition area. Hydrogen sensor systems can be found in Hall 11, suppliers of electrolysers in Hall 9.1, pumps and valves for hydrogen applications in Halls 8 and 9, while industry collaborations around hydrogen economics of the future will be present at the Innovation Hall 6.0. All those who want to produce, move or store hydrogen will find the right technologies, project partners and suppliers at Achema. In addition, there is the top-class congress program, which offers all week insights, best practices as well as research results around hydrogen with the theme day on the hydrogen economy including a matching highlight session on Monday, August 22nd, 2022.

One technology that is indispensable is electrolysis, i.e. the splitting of water into its building blocks hydrogen and oxygen by means of electric current. In principle, this process is also an old hat from the early days of electrochemistry, but it comes in many different forms, such as PEM, high-temperature or alkaline electrolysis.

A Question of Energy

Yet, the scale of most electrolysis units is still relatively small: Even the world’s largest PEM electrolyzer, which Linde is currently building in Leuna, Germany, is expected to produce “only” about ten tons of gas per day. However, the entire Linde Group today does not produce much more hydrogen with all its plants worldwide.

“Water electrolysis is a surface process, and the specific costs of producing hydrogen do not decrease to the same extent as for conventional volume processes,” Ausfelder points out. But that’s only one problem — a comparatively small one at that: The “sufficient supply of renewable energies beyond the pure electricity system, i.e. the additional electricity required for hydrogen production and electrification of processes, is not taken into account in the current expansion targets,” explains the Dechema specialist.

And even if electricity and gas are available, the corresponding industrial processes must be converted to new energy sources and feedstocks — which requires ap­propriate planning and supply security. It’s the old problem of chicken and egg, of green gas and H2-ready consumer industries.

And then? Of course, hydrogen also needs a certain infrastructure: It needs gas storage facilities, distribution networks and transport options just as much as green electricity, electrolysers and “green” processes. Right in the middle of these networks of the future: the big chemical clusters and large Verbund sites.

After all, some of the industrial parks have over a century of experience in the production, distribution and use of hydrogen. But that alone will not be enough, Florian Ausfelder is convinced: “The current infrastructure is not sufficient for the tasks ahead. Transport pipelines in the sense of a European H2 backbone must therefore be installed quickly and chemical sites (just like steel and refining) connected to lay the logistical foundation for industrial transformation.” The expert would prefer to route the necessary pipeline routes along existing gas pipelines to shorten the times for approval and construction.

The Future of Chemistry

Dechema is active as part of the TransHyDE project and is in ex­change with companies and universities — for example, via site analyses or projects such as Trans4ReaL. If anyone had said ten years ago that Achemas would provide a home for the circular economy and green hydrogen processes, the astonishment would have been great.

If you ask Ausfelder, the Dechema expert doesn’t believe the trend will end soon: “Hydrogen will increase in importance — this will also be evident at Achema,” the chemical association’s climate specialist is convinced. “It will increasingly move from research and development prospects into the standard technology portfolio.”

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