The hydrogen opportunity

With a focus on the efficient use of natural resources, Johnson Matthey has developed a technology that could help to lower greenhouse gas emissions by improving process efficiency when producing hydrogen.

"Of all the possible routes to decarbonised gas, hydrogen has the potential to have a game changing impact on climate change."

Hydrogen today is predominantly made by conventional steam methane reforming (SMR) of natural gas. The Hydrogen Council estimates the amount of hydrogen currently used globally to be eight exajoules (equivalent to 2200 TWh). This is used primarily in refineries and for ammonia and methanol production. With a growing population, and as refineries need additional hydrogen to upgrade heavier oil, this requirement is only expected to increase.

In the future it's likely that we'll need to massively increase the amount of hydrogen produced. It's now understood that to reduce the impact of climate change we must dramatically reduce CO2 emissions in every aspect of life. Transitioning to low carbon energy can happen in a number of ways and a low carbon gas option is critical in providing a robust, resilient system. It is also low cost and flexible. Of all the possible routes to decarbonised gas, hydrogen has the potential to have a game changing impact on climate change.

But if hydrogen is to play a role in reducing the impact of climate change, it will need to have substantially lower CO2 emissions than current manufacturing processes. For hydrogen to be made from natural gas, it needs to be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Conventionally this process would use steam methane reforming combined with CCS; but this process captures the CO2 from fluegas, which is at low concentration and pressure and therefore has a high capital requirement. This can double the overall cost of the plant. It is therefore more cost effective to capture the CO2 at process pressure using well proven capture technology.

The main difference between our LCH solution, which has a gas heated reformer/autothermal reformer at its core, and the conventional route to hydrogen using steam methane reforming is that the energy to drive the reaction is provided by introducing oxygen to the reactor rather than burning fuel in gas burners.

The advantages of our LC solution are: 

  • The LCH flowsheet is more energy efficient than a steam methane reforming flowsheet.
  • The reforming reaction is conducted at a higher temperature which means more methane is converted to hydrogen. 
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, the vast majority of CO2 produced during the various reactions is contained within the process and can be captured at more than 95% than using existing technology.

This month (November 2018), JM received a grant from UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This is to develop our understanding of the costs and performance for our proposed LCH solution under the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund Wave 6. The Energy Entrepreneurs Fund is a competitive funding scheme to support the development of technologies, products and processes in energy efficiency, power generation and storage. 

The information generated will inform BEIS on the potential for cost effective clean hydrogen production at large scale as part of their wider ambitions within the Clean Growth Plan. With ambitious policy over the next few years, the UK can continue to move towards fulfilling its obligations under the Climate Change Act.


Read more

Supporting the hydrogen economy

How fuel cell technologies can shape the UK's future