The hydrogen economy – a look into the future

Alternative fuels, such as LNG, electrification and blue and green electricity play an important part in the port of Antwerp. The chemical company INOVYN has therefore set up a business unit dedicated to hydrogen. This is a sustainable initiative that Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship can only applaud.

The hydrogen economy means that hydrogen gas is used as an energy carrier or as a raw material during a (production) process. Fossil fuels are no longer the sole source of energy.

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Getting to know INOVYN and VLAIO

INOVYN is a leading chemical company and forms part of INEOS. Its products (such as salt, PVC and chlorine) can be found in almost every aspect of today's society. Wouter Bleukx, the Business Unit Manager for Hydrogen at INOVYN, has a noble ambition: “I want to contribute in order to make a difference for the next generation and hydrogen has the ability to bring that about.”

Mark Andries, the Administrator General of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO), is involved in stimulating growth and innovation within Flemish companies. Any company can become a client of VLAIO, whether they are a large business, a small business or anything in between. “The Flemish government believes in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship certainly merits a boost. The threshold when it comes to applying for financial support is deliberately low. As far as quality is concerned, however, we deliberately set the bar high. Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship is on the look-out for innovative knowledge and game-changing developments, such as the hydrogen economy”, says Mark Andries.

Programmes designed to disseminate knowledge also feature high on the agenda. Companies who lack the necessary expertise in house, but have the potential to innovate, can enlist the help of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Hydrogen as part of the production process

Hydrogen is a by-product of a whole host of chemical processes. Nowadays, the bulk of the hydrogen generated is captured and used as a fuel or as a raw material for the production of other chemical products (such as ammonia). Hydrogen occurs extensively in the chemical industry and is therefore not uncommon in the port of Antwerp. But is it possible to build up an economy around hydrogen?

Each year, INOVYN produces 2 million tonnes of chlorine and a further 2 million tonnes of sodium hydroxide (lye). Hydrogen is also released during the production processes. That hydrogen is already playing an important role within INOVYN's sustainability strategy.

Studies show that if it is used smartly, hydrogen brings about a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. That is why hydrogen has a positive impact on the environment. In one of the next phases, we intend to produce more green hydrogen in order to reduce CO2 emissions even more, though it is important that these projects are also economically viable.

Zero CO2 emissions

CO2 emissions are a significant cause of climate change. A variety of sectors (industrial, electricity, transportation and agriculture, amongst others) are contributing towards those CO2 emissions. INEOS and INOVYN are looking into a number of processes in order to reduce CO2 emissions in line with the European sustainability guidelines. Electrification is one of the solutions. Using green electricity for processes in which fossil fuels were mainly used is certainly one of the routes to follow. Not all applications can be electrified, however. That is where hydrogen is the answer, as it can be captured and used as a carrier of renewable energy. Though this is accompanied by some efficiency losses, this is still one way in which to reduce CO2 emissions even further.

Making salt while reducing CO2 emissions by 16%

INOVYN dares to take risks in the name of sustainable entrepreneurship and production. A good example of this is the construction of a new production unit for salt in Tavaux (France). This will be built in accordance with the best available technological processes. it is estimated that this innovation will cost 68 million euros, but its impact will be impressive. This investment will play a part in reducing energy and water consumption and will lead to a 16% reduction in the CO2 emissions of the entire INOVYN site in Tavaux.

Profit People Planet balance sheet

The balance sheet must add up. Not only is that true in accountancy, but also in the sustainable entrepreneurship plan. “You make everything greener”, says Wouter, “but the company's other objectives mustn't suffer as a result. We are still a company, so we must also seek to maintain our own financial health. Profit, People, Planet – all three of them are important and they must be in balance with one another.”

INOVYN applies a transparent methodology when it comes to selecting projects that will be implemented. The methodology is based on an x-axis and a y-axis. The x value shows the impact on the climate, while the y-axis indicates the ROI. This allows Wouter and his team to identify which initiatives will have the most positive impact on the climate, whilst also representing the most favourable outcome from a financial point of view. “However good and green some ideas may be, some of them are not yet feasible from an economic point of view, which means that we cannot justify implementing a project of that type at the present time.” And then the question arises – how does hydrogen fit into this model?

Right now, more than 60 projects into energy efficiency and green projects are under way at more than 12 INOVYN sites in Europe. Each site has its own sustainability programme and sustainability objectives. The objective to achieve a production process that is CO2 neutral over time plays a key part.

Increasing interest in the hydrogen economy

The climate crisis needs to be avoided in any way possible, but we still need to make further major breakthroughs. Riding to work on your bike twice a week isn't going to save our planet

Mark Andriesthe Administrator General of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO)

Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship looks on with satisfaction whenever interest in sustainable and forward-looking projects increases. “The climate crisis needs to be avoided in any way possible, but we still need to make further major breakthroughs. Riding to work on your bike twice a week isn't going to save our planet”, quotes Mark Andries. He encourages entrepreneurs by making a case for a fundamental transformation and further technological breakthroughs not only in order to optimise production efficiency, in which the limits have more or less been reached, but most of all, as a means of launching structural innovations. Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship is keen to contribute towards supporting projects that are innovative and sustainable.

“The climate is not a local or a regional problem. A network of international players with both the competence and the resources would, however, be capable of saving our climate. But we need to progress efforts in that direction, not only in the port of Antwerp, but on a global scale. Industrial sectors such as the steel and chemical industries, which are associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, carry a high degree of responsibility within these efforts. Today, those businesses are already bringing about ground-breaking innovations and are creating large numbers of jobs. In Flanders, our aim is to nurture companies of that type, but the entire sector must also undergo a major and significant transformation. Both short-term and long-term investments are therefore the order of the day”, says Mark.

Belgium as a global leader in terms of hydrogen density

The Belgian economy processes around 6 billion m3 of hydrogen each year. What is more, we are the global champion when it comes to the density of our hydrogen networks. The biggest concentration of these consists of only 613 km of pipelines. The presence of hydrogen has therefore gained substantial ground within Belgium's industrial sector. All that we need to do now is simply utilise the product in such a way that it has a beneficial effect on the climate and on our economy.

Utilising hydrogen for a wide variety of purposes

Developing new applications for hydrogen will enable the product to make a positive contribution to a green future. One of the ways this can be achieved is by using hydrogen as a carrier of renewable energy. As part of the circular economy, hydrogen can then be recaptured in order to serve as a raw material for a different product. “Utilising hydrogen for multiple applications will have a positive impact on the climate problem. That is something that businesses and the government already agree on.”

Anyone who is already a pioneer in the development of the hydrogen economy will find it easier to occupy a privileged market position in the future

Mark Andries

The hydrogen economy is a chain economy

In order to put hydrogen on the map as a climate-neutral fuel in the near future, sustainable collaboration will be needed between a variety of sectors. “The ports, the automotive sector, the energy sector and the chemical industry are going to have to put their shoulders behind this”, says Mark.

The business models that have proven their worth within the circular economy can serve as a foundation on which to build the hydrogen economy.

The changing cost of hydrogen

“Having the courage to take risks is a priority for INOVYN. At the moment, our Hydrogen business unit is costing more than it is generating. However, I am convinced that the positive evolution of these yield curve will not be too long in coming”, says Wouter Bleukx.

The success of the hydrogen economy will depend on the availability of renewable energy. At the same time, the cost will still need to be reduced considerably. At the moment, the cost is too high to make the development and innovation in the use of hydrogen an attractive proposition. According to Wouter, it will only take a few years for this barrier to be overcome. "Today, solar panels already cost 60% less than they did 10 years ago. It will take time, but the developments give us hope. Once demand for hydrogen increases, such as in the car industry for example, the price will also come down. Economies of scale are the key."

“In addition, scientific breakthroughs will be needed in order to produce hydrogen in a climate-neutral way. Academic research and industrial development must therefore work together. The learning curve will be much shorter if various parties work together to make hydrogen market-ready.”

Power to methanol

A nice example that demonstrates the added value of academic research is the Power to Methanol project (powertomethanolantwerp.com). University research found that CO2 and green hydrogen can serve as a raw material in the production of methanol. The industrial sector is now seeking to confirm this by applying the research during an operational test phase at the INOVYN site in Antwerp.

“Getting different partners together around a table yields results. Knowledge is indispensable, but when it comes to realising projects, a good network, collaboration and effective communication are at least equally important. This test project will give us the proof we need”, says Wouter.

*Port of Antwerp played an active role in investigating what is scientifically or theoretically possible and what is actually feasible in an industrial setting.

About Inovyn

The optimism must be there and together, we can save our climate. But we also need to be realistic. We must be aware that the road ahead will be a very difficult one

Marc Andries administrateur-generaal van het Vlaams Agentschap voor Innoveren en Ondernemen (VLAIO)

A look into the future of hydrogen

Europe's economy must be 100% climate neutral by 2050 and hydrogen may make a major contribution towards this. The green applications of hydrogen are diverse. “In the future, trucks and inland waterways vessels in the port of Antwerp could be powered by hydrogen.” says Wouter. In order to achieve that ideal, however, considerable efforts are still needed throughout the entire hydrogen value chain, from the production of H2 and the infrastructure, to the availability of trucks equipped with fuel cells and so on.

 

“In the meantime, we can concentrate on developing green solutions for certain clusters, such as the port of Antwerp. My recommendation is: don't start out on a giga scale. As long as green energy is only available in limited quantities, we must use green hydrogen where this makes most sense: as a raw material for mobility applications. Once achieved, those projects will give the hydrogen economy a boost. Right now, we find ourselves in an important phase in which we are committing resources to projects that take up a great deal of time and energy, but don't provide results on a sufficiently large scale. But once that breakthrough has been made, other developments may quickly follow. So we need to keep working at it for a while longer,” says Wouter Bleukx.

 

“The optimism must be there and together, we can save our climate. But we also need to be realistic. We must be aware that the road ahead will be a very difficult one”, says Mark Andries.