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Hydrogen In, Fossil Fuel Out For Leading Steelmaker, Eventually

A new “green” hydrogen pilot plant in Austria aims at decarbonizing industrial processes, beginning with steel, with an assist from renewable H2.

Fossil fuels are slowly losing their grip on the transportation and power generation sectors, and the next domino to fall is the industrial sector. In the latest development, earlier this month the leading global steelmaker voestalpine announced the startup of the largest (so far) “green” hydrogen pilot plant in the world at its site in Linz, Austria.

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Electrolyzer for green hydrogen production at voestalpine steelmaking facility in Linz, Austria (Image via voestalpine).

voestalpine wants to decarbonize, eventually

Voestalpine is depending on zero emission hydrogen for its decarbonization plans, and that is going to be a tough row to hoe.

As the company makes clear in its climate action statement, hydrogen is only sustainable if it is produced with clean energy. The company estimates that it needs more than 30 terawatt hours per year to sustain its global operations.

On the plus side, voestalpine describes itself as “a leading partner of the automotive and consumer goods industries as well as of the aerospace and oil & gas industries.” The company is also “the world market leader in complete railway systems as well as in tool steel and special sections.”

With operations among 500 companies spread out over 50 countries, voestalpine has an outsized impact on the global supply chain. Any steps the company takes to decarbonize will have global ripple effect of significant proportions, so a lot is riding on the success of the new pilot plant.

Green Hydrogen For Steelmaking

How much is riding on the new pilot plant? A lot! It received €18 million in EU funding through the steelmaking program in EU’s H2FUTURE project, which also includes VERBUND, Siemens, Austrian Power Grid, K1-MET, and TNO.

In addition, the Fuel Cell Hydrogen Joint Undertaking has made up to €12 million in research funding available to shepherd the project along.

The 6-megawatt plant has a dual purpose. Aside from generating hydrogen for steelmaking at the Linz site, it will also be used to test the use of hydrogen as a storage medium to help balance fluctuations in the power grid.

The general idea would be to use excess renewable energy to generate hydrogen when demand is low, and use the stored hydrogen to supplement renewables when demand is high.

That storage and balancing element is going to become increasingly important as the electrification trend grows in buildings and vehicles as well as in industrial processes, adding new demands to the grid.

How Does It Work?

The basic technology behind the new plant is electrolysis, in which an electrical current is used to “split” hydrogen gas from water.

The sticky wicket, of course, is where to get the electricity. Until the rise of low-cost renewable energy, electrolysis made no sense from a decarbonization perspective. Now the picture is different. Some regions are already looking at scenarios in which they routinely generate more renewable energy than they can use locally.

If all goes according to plan, voestalpine will use hydrogen from the new plant to transition out of blast furnace technology that relies on coal and coke, and into high efficiency electric arc furnaces.

The goal is to cut the Group’s global CO2 emissions by approximately 30% by 2035, as a first step to an 80% reduction by 2050.

As for the electrolyzer itself, the “high-tech heart of the plant” is a 6-megawatt Siemens Silyzer 300, which is specifically designed to run on wind and solar energy. Here’s the rundown from Siemens:

“Silyzer 300 is the latest, most powerful product line in the double-digit megawatt range of Siemens’ PEM electrolysis portfolio. Silyzer 300’s modular design makes unique use of scaling effects to minimize investment costs for large-scale industrial electrolysis plants. The optimized solution results in very low hydrogen production costs thanks to high plant efficiency and availability.”

More & Better Green Hydrogen

So is the hydrogen economy a real thing? Probably! The EU is not the only hotspot for green hydrogen. Here in the US, things seem to be popping. California and several other coastal states have been promoting renewable H2 and fuel cells for a number of years, and just last month something called the Midwest Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Coalition popped up.

The new coalition is significant because it ropes in a group of US states that tend to be associated with Rust Belt technology and fossil fuels — but they also happen to have some of the best wind resources in the US.

As a group, they currently account for 35% of the installed wind capacity in the US.

The list includes Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Missouri is an especially interesting member of the group. The state still relies heavily on coal for power generation, but the North Carolina-based steelmaker Nucor just gave the state a good push in the right direction by tapping it for the location of a new steel recycling facility, to be run with wind power.

The new consortium is spearheaded by the University of Illinois and the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory. CleanTechnica is reaching out to them to more insights into the project, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: Electrolyzer for green H2 production courtesy of voestalpine.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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