The oil and gas giants of the world are creeping slowly into decarbonization mode, but some are creeping slowlier than others. A case in point is the green hydrogen field. Shell is lending its support to next-generation solid oxide electrolyzers that push renewable or “green” hydrogen gas from water. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is, well, doing what it does best.
Solid Oxide Electrolyzers For More Green Hydrogen
Green hydrogen critics continue to hammer away at their points, but the simple fact is that the modern industrial economy already runs on hydrogen regardless of how many figures and charts they scroll out. Hydrogen is a fuel, an energy carrier and storage medium, a refinery input, a tool for glassmaking and metallurgy, and a feedstock for fertilizers, along with medicines, toiletries, processed foods, and other consumer products.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. However, here on Earth it is bound to other substances and must be extracted somehow. Until recent years, submitting natural gas and other fossil resources to a steam reforming process has been the primary means of supplying the global thirst for hydrogen. That is finally beginning to change as low-cost wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources become more available.
The growing supply of zero emission electricity is the driving force behind water electrolysis, which deploys an electrical current to “split” hydrogen from water, giving rise to the moniker green hydrogen.
Cutting the cost of electrolysis is the next big step. That’s where new solid oxide technology comes in. Unlike conventional electrolyzers, solid oxide technology does not require an expensive catalyst. It also offers the potential to operate more efficiently, adding more downward pressure on the cost of green hydrogen.
Shell Hearts Green Hydrogen, A Bit
Shell took some heat in the British press in February, when industry observers accused the UK-headquartered firm of raking in “obscene” windfall profits in 2022 without paying their fair share of taxes. Meanwhile, Bloomberg notes that Shell does not seem inclined to deploy its record-setting profits to grow its stake in the renewable energy field.
“Shell Plc plans to keep investment in its renewables and energy solutions business steady this year after it hit an all-time high in 2022, a signal that the company’s record profits won’t significantly accelerate its low-carbon ambitions,” Bloomberg reported on February 2. “Spending on the unit includes a variety of technologies from wind and solar farms, to carbon offsets, carbon capture and biofuels.”
That list also includes green hydrogen. Back in 2021, Shell launched the biggest electrolyzer system in the EU as part of a scheme to create a green hydrogen network on the continent. Shell also presented the hydrogen hub concept at a renewable H2 conference in Texas that year. The company’s interest in US offshore wind resources could come into play as well.
Solid Oxide Electrolyzers Are Having A Moment
Shell may be pausing further growth in its renewable energy stake, but that doesn’t appear to mean the company is standing still. Last year, Shell hooked up with the UK solid oxide specialist Ceres Power to demonstrate green hydrogen production in India, and just a few days ago they cemented a partnership with the Finnish solid oxide electrolyzer firm Convion.
The agreement calls for Convion to set up four of its C250e electrolyzer modules to form a 1-megawatt demonstration project at the Shell Energy Transition Campus, in Amsterdam.
“In the partnership, Shell and Convion aim to produce renewable hydrogen by solid oxide electrolysis (SOE) at efficiencies clearly higher than other electrolysis technologies,” Convion explained earlier this week, on March 8.
“SOE technology makes possible hydrogen production at 25-30% lower electricity consumption, when waste heat is used for steam generation,” Convion added.
In an especially interesting twist, the two companies will take advantage of the reversibility of the electrolysis process. If you’re thinking that means solid oxide fuel cells powered by green hydrogen, that would be it.
“The companies will also explore new opportunities for matching of supply and demand of renewable electricity by utilizing Convion electrolysers reversible operation (rSOC) option, enabling both power generation and hydrogen production with same equipment,” Convion notes.
To be clear, Shell is also continuing to pump new hydrocarbons out of the Earth, and they will most likely continue doing that as long as consumers choose to consume those products.
However, as an A-list showcaser of green hydrogen technology, Shell is also in a position to help accelerate investor interest in next-generation electrolyzer and fuel cell technology, beyond whatever the company chooses to spend from its own pocketbook.
That sets a somewhat better example than ExxonMobil, which recently decided to close the lid on its funding for a longstanding algae biofuel research project.
Critics have described Exxon’s algae project as a classic exercise in greenwashing. A March 6 report in The Colorado Sun also indicates that Exxon has viewed algae biofuel as a carbon capture opportunity, rather than a replacement for fossil energy.
Apparently the company has lost interest in algae now that other carbon capture technology is available. That may or may not be so, but it is consistent with Exxon’s latest hydrogen venture. The company has yet to dip into the green hydrogen field, but it is stepping up the production of hydrogen from fossil resources.
In March last year, Exxon announced plans to produce up to 1 billion cubic feet of fossil-sourced hydrogen per day at its sprawling Baytown facility in Texas, deploying natural gas as the feedstock. The plan is to integrate a carbon capture system and market the hydrogen under the “blue” umbrella, which is a public relations concoction aimed at drawing attention away from the fossil energy angle.
The “blue” H2 name tag isn’t fooling anyone. However, leadership at Exxon seems convinced that ample demand. Whether or not anyone buys into the public relations pitch, the company is forging ahead with the Baytown project. On January 30 of this year, Exxon announced that it has awarded the front-end engineering and design contract for its new natural gas-to-hydrogen facility to the carbon capture specialist Technip Energies.
As for what Exxon plans to do with the captured carbon, apparently algae farming is not it. A quick look at Technip’s website suggests that offshore sequestration could be in the works. Technip is also a partner in Shell’s “CANSOLV” carbon capture technology. That is another hint that Exxon will rely on offshore sequestration, though Shell indicates that CANSOLVE can be deployed to capture carbon for commodities markets. The e-fuel field is one example that comes to mind.
Meanwhile, algae research soldiers on. Last fall, for example the Colorado School of Mines — which was a partner in the Exxon algae project — announced a new $3.2 million research collaboration with the University of North Carolina and the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, aimed at deploying microalgae to capture carbon for making biogenic limestone-based portland cement.
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Image: H2 resources courtesy of US Department of Energy.
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