Hydrogen generated from green electricity has the potential to massively decarbonize energy-intensive industries. An electrolysis plant installed as part of the H2FUTURE research project in voestalpine’s steel works in Austria, shows just how close this future already is. This plant, equipped with electrolysis technology from Siemens Energy, is capable of producing green hydrogen on a large industrial scale.
By Frank Krull
The water in the inspection glass churns furiously. Gas bubbles roar past. The electrolysis plant at voestalpine’s steel works in Linz is running at full speed. In large electrolytic cells, an electric current breaks water down into its components, oxygen and hydrogen.
Voestalpine is less concerned, however, about the oxygen passing through the inspection glass. What mainly interests the steel and technology company is the up to 1,200 cubic meters of hydrogen that the cells generate each hour. In the long term, hydrogen could be used to manufacture steel with a much lower level of CO2 emissions than now. The electrolysis technology installed by Siemens Energy is ideal for the task: It’s flexible enough to operate entirely using green power from renewable sources, so it can deliver 100-percent green hydrogen.
Pressure from the climate
EU climate targets are putting the European steel industry under huge pressure to reduce its CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen is a highly promising future option for achieving large-scale decarbonization in energy-intensive sectors like the steel industry. According to the World Steel Association, every metric ton of raw steel produced in 2018 also generated 1.85 metric tons of CO2. Green hydrogen could significantly reduce this figure if iron could be obtained from ore using hydrogen in direct reduction plants, instead of coke and coal in blast furnaces. The sponge iron generated in this way can then be smelted into steel using electric arc furnaces. Converting the entire process to green hydrogen and electric arc furnaces running on green power would reduce the CO2 emissions of the Linz steel works by over 80 percent in the long term.
Green power and water
Electrolysis of water involves placing two electrodes in water and applying a DC voltage to them. This will cause hydrogen to form at the negative and oxygen at the positive electrode. The alkaline electrolysis systems most commonly used today require an electrolyte to be added to the water, which in its pure form is a poor conductor of electricity.
With the Silyzer 300 system installed in Linz, however, this is not necessary. It’s equipped with proton exchange membranes (PEM) and is therefore able to work with no additives in the water. In PEM electrolysis, electrons are drawn directly from the water molecules at the positive electrode, leaving positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) and oxygen behind. The membrane is permeable only to protons, which pass through it to the negative electrode where they combine with electrons to form hydrogen. The oxygen, which cannot pass through the membrane, remains where it was formed.
“We have set ourselves clear goals for taking direct avoidance of CO2 emissions in steel production a step further in the next few years. The world’s largest hydrogen pilot plant at our location in Linz represents an important step in driving forward research for this technology transformation.”Hubert Zajicek, Member of the Management Board of voestalpine AG and Head of the Steel Division
Six partners with one goal
The EU-funded H2FUTURE project brings together energy suppliers, the steel industry, technology providers and research partners, all working hand in hand on the future of energy. The partners voestalpine, VERBUND, Siemens Energy, Austrian Power Grid, K1-MET and TNO are researching into the industrial production of green hydrogen as a means of replacing fossil fuels in steel production over the long term. Furthermore, the project, which receives EUR 18 million in EU funding, will investigate the potential to provide network services, and potentially compensate for fluctuations in the power grid.
Green future prospects
Compared to the alkaline version, there are more differences to PEM electrolysis than just the fact that it works with unadulterated water. It also doesn’t require preheating, so it can respond more quickly to changes in current. Quick starts under full load are no problem with a PEM electrolysis system. It’s also capable of operating in a very low partial load range. That means a plant like the one in Linz can consistently generate green hydrogen even with a fluctuating supply of green power.
Green hydrogen is not just of interest to steel works. Other branches of industry that require large volumes of hydrogen as a process gas, or could use it as a fuel, could also drastically reduce CO2 emissions at their plants in this way. Refineries, chemical firms, and glass and fertilizer manufacturers are obvious examples of entities that could benefit from green hydrogen to improve their green future prospects.
Ocober, 2022 (updated version), November , 2020 (first version)
Frank Krull is a physicist and journalist and works in the Communications department at Siemens Energy.
Combined picture credits: voestalpine, Siemens Energy, Ilona Burgarth