03/12/2020 - Renewables
by Vincent Designolle
From solar and wind to biomass, the number of cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels has exploded in recent years. But one clearly stands out from the pack: hydrogen. Already well established in industrial uses, hydrogen is now angling to conquer hard-to-decarbonize sectors like heavy transport and energy-intensive industries. To ensure success, infrastructure at a large scale will be needed to support hydrogen’s growth—a gargantuan undertaking that Vallourec is well placed to support.
Lightweight, storable and zero-emission, hydrogen is poised to play a key role in meeting global demand for cleaner energy. And it already has some big-name support: the European Commission recently announced it wants hydrogen to represent 12-14% of the EU’s overall energy mix by 2050, a lofty ambition that has multiple industries scrambling to find ways to exploit hydrogen’s potential.
While today, hydrogen is mainly used for refining and ammonia production, it has been earmarked for more diverse uses in the future. Indeed, low-carbon hydrogen has the potential to support decarbonization of many energy-intensive industrial processes. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen also hold the exciting prospect of providing a cleaner way of getting from A to B, allowing greater autonomy and payloads than other zero emission vehicles. But while these new applications shift into high gear, tremendous work must be done to create the hydrogen value chain. This includes storage, transportation, pipelines and other means of distribution. A variety of robust solutions will be needed to build this critical infrastructure, which would benefit a wide range of sectors.
Everything old is new again
Industrious project developers can rest easy knowing the development of robust hydrogen storage and distribution infrastructure already has a giant head start. Yes, this colossal endeavor will benefit from a century’s worth of technology and infrastructure put in place to keep the world supplied with fossil fuel energy. Building on this existing technology and expertise will thus be essential to overcoming three main challenges specific to hydrogen’s unique properties.
First, hydrogen has very low energy density per unit of volume, meaning it takes up a lot more space and must be stored at very high pressure. Cylinder and pipe technology used to store and transport oil and gas could be used as a basis. However, expertise in tube technology will be necessary to achieve the right steel grade and thickness for high-pressure storage.
Another challenge is managing the behavior of hydrogen atoms when they interact with metals. This is known as hydrogen embrittlement, which severely reduces metal ductility and strength. Vallourec’s experts have been studying this issue for years, designing safe solutions for “sour service” applications, particularly for oil and gas operations. Its invaluable insight has proven to be a key asset in studying and designing effective solutions for new hydrogen applications.
Finally, hydrogen molecules are relatively small in size, thereby requiring special equipment and procedures to ensure its safe and efficient handling. Specifically, sealability of connections will need to be carefully addressed so hydrogen does not escape from wells. VAM® connections are recognized for their reliability in a wide sort of use cases. This know-how is being adapted for the sort of tight connections necessary to transport and store hydrogen.
Building on Vallourec's expertise
Today, hydrogen is stored in small-scale tanks—either as compressed gas or in liquid form—for distribution. If hydrogen is to become the world’s energy carrier powerhouse, other large-scale storage and transportation solutions must be developed. Vallourec is well-positioned to support in this regard.
Already a rapidly developing sector, hydrogen transport via pipeline can benefit from Vallourec’s expertise in pipe and tube metallurgy in relation to hydrogen. A valued member of the European Pipeline Research Group (EPRG), Vallourec aims to support operators with products and services that repurpose established grids and convey hydrogen, either in a pure state or blended with natural gas. In addition to our recognized products, we are working to develop new services for our customers, leveraging our expertise and experience in pipeline applications and field services with Serimax.
In addition to pipelines, underground storage solutions—such as salt caverns—are emerging as a viable option to store hydrogen due to their excellent sealability and efficiency, low operating costs, and significant economies of scale. Because sealability is critical to safe and successful salt cavern use, Vallourec’s expertise in materials, connections and services can help customers optimize the reliability and efficiency of future salt cavern developments for hydrogen. Safety of operations will be even more critical than when working with gas. Equally, our integrity monitoring services can be of great value. We will also make our whole suite of digital and field services available to hydrogen storage operators.
In addition to storage and transportation and efficient distribution of hydrogen, infrastructure for end uses, such as FCEVs, will also be key. Specifically, hydrogen refueling stations will need to exponentially ramp up to ensure the large-scale success of these vehicles. Vallourec is already providing key components to refueling stations, including pipes meant for high-pressure storage in pressure vessels or piston accumulators, as well as piping systems. Vallourec has in-depth understanding of hydrogen compatible steel materials, and industrial capabilities suited to the largest storage facilities featuring very high pressure (1000 bar). We also have a track-record in inspection and non-destructive testing, a key component to guarantee facilities’ lifetime performance.
Bottom line: a combination of innovative products and expertise in materials, connections and the energy lifecycle—two areas in which Vallourec excels—will be required to help hydrogen inch closer to achieving its full potential. A cleaner tomorrow is on the horizon thanks to hydrogen, and Vallourec is keen to contribute.
About Vincent Designolle
Vincent Designolle joined Vallourec in 2017 as Strategy Director. In 2020 he joined the Energy Transition Office as Hydrogen Cluster Director, heading up Vallourec’s business development in emerging hydrogen markets. A graduate of Ecole Polytechnique and Mines Paristech, Vincent worked for nine years at the French Ministry of the Economy and Finance and the Ministry of the Environment in roles ranging from industrial safety to pollution control and market regulation.