Hydrogen is taking over Europe

European gas operators plan to double the length of the planned hydrogen pipeline. The European Hydrogen Backbone proposed building 11,600 km of hydrogen pipelines in the European Union by 2030, and bringing their length to nearly 40,000 km in 21 EU countries by 2040. In comparison, the length of the world’s longest gas pipeline, Nord Stream, is 1,200 km. The pipeline plan will cover the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Ireland, most of Central and Eastern Europe, Finland, Estonia and Greece. The truth is that 70% of this network will consist of repurposed existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

Why? The main reason for the interest in using hydrogen as fuel is its high energy value (calorific heat 120 MJ/kg versus 56 MJ/kg for methane) and the absence (or significant reduction) of CO2 emissions.

The next most popular questions are how and who will produce hydrogen, how much will it cost, who will consume it and will they consume it?
Today, of the 75 million tons of hydrogen produced worldwide per year, more than 90% is produced locally and used in the chemical industry (production of ammonia, methanol, hydrocracking, etc). It is planned that European consumers will use H2 to power vehicles and possibly as a source for fuel cells that can supply homes with electricity and heat.

Hydrogen is the most widespread chemical substance in the universe, it is odourless and colourless. However, in the classification by type of production, hydrogen is classified specifically by colour.

Grey hydrogen is produced from coal, oil and gas. The main technology today is steam methane reforming (SMR). This industrialised and low-cost process gives H2 at 1.5 €/kg. Steam methane conversion leads to carbon dioxide emissions — 10 kg CO2/kg — hence the ‘grey’.

Blue hydrogen is called if carbon dioxide capture and conservation stages are added during production from hydrocarbons. This increases the cost of hydrogen to ~2 €/kg and the price of CO2 disposal to €70 per tonne of CO2.

Green hydrogen produced using electricity and is divided into Electricity-based hydrogen produced by electrolysis (2H2O → 2H2 + O2), where the electricity feeding the process is obtained by classical methods. And Renewable hydrogen — produced by electrolysis of water, but the electricity to power the process is produced from renewable sources. Renewable hydrogen can also be produced by reforming of biogas (instead of natural gas). The cost to produce such H2 is 2.5–5.5 €/kg.

There are also a number of more exotic types:

Turquoise is produced by thermal cracking of methane (pyrolysis). Solid carbon is produced instead of CO2. CO2 neutrality of the process is based on the heat supply of the high-temperature reactor from renewable energy sources as well as the permanent carbon sequestration.
Black — produced from different grades of coal.
Pink — produced using nuclear power.

Green, Blue, Turquoise and Pink are respectively CO2 neutral.

The European Union is focusing primarily on green and blue hydrogen in its strategy, with green hydrogen as the priority. The economic use of blue hydrogen depends to a large extent on how CO2 will be priced in the future and requires infrastructure to transport and store the CO2.
Another important disadvantage of blue hydrogen is that it cannot be used in any type of fuel cell without additional purification. This applies to all types: solid oxide (Bloom Energy), phosphoric acid (Doosan FuelCell), proton exchange membranes, PEM (Ballard), etc. — but in different extents.

The purity of hydrogen produced by steam and steam-oxygen conversion is typically 70–75%. The PEMFC (used by car manufacturers) requires hydrogen of at least 99.99% purity. Accordingly, the blue hydrogen must be purified. There are a number of methods: adsorption, absorption, diffusion through membranes, electrochemical conversion, deep cooling, etc. Interesting start-ups could appear in this area, as purification should become cheaper.

Will transport switch to hydrogen? Depends on many factors (H2 vehicles, refueling stations, …). In terms of fuel costs, the economics is as follows: 1kg of hydrogen used in a fuel cell to power an electric motor contains about the same energy as a gallon of diesel. A gallon is 3.8 litres. The cost of diesel today is 5.6€ per gallon in the UK, gas is ~3.5€. These are indicative of the cost of retail hydrogen — by comparison you can fill up with subsidised hydrogen in Europe today for 12–17€ a gallon.

Daniel is a Partner in Phystech Ventures. Hydrogen fuel cells pioneer in Eastern Europe. Venture capital professional focused on DeepTech, Robotics, Quantum, AI