Hydrogen Sealing Solutions Q&A: Your Top Questions From Our Renewable Hydrogen Webinar

June 13, 2024

7 Minute Read

Last month, John Crane partnered with Global Hydrogen Review to host the webinar, “A Sustainability Voyage: Navigate the Hydrogen Value Chain with John Crane.” This immersive webinar provided key insights into minimizing leaks, enhancing efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the new hydrogen value chain. The webinar ended with a Q&A session featuring John Crane’s hydrogen experts.

To support your hydrogen progress, we’re sharing the webinar Q&A content here. You can also view the webinar on-demand and explore our market-ready hydrogen solutions.

What uncertainties is John Crane seeing in the hydrogen value chain?

One high-level uncertainty involves the lack of hydrogen regulation and certification. We were in Spain at a hydrogen conference recently, and an energy provider wanted to build an electrolyzer facility. But to do so, the provider would have to navigate regulations both from API and the power industry, taking bits and pieces from both — which would likely add significant cost to building the facility. This speaks to the need for clear regulations surrounding hydrogen initiatives.

At that same conference, there were also numerous speakers from the port authority. They raised a key question: “If I ship green hydrogen from Europe, for example, into America or vice versa, what do we call ‘green”? We also need certifications to define green, or low carbon hydrogen.

Another significant question is where the market is headed in terms of production location. Will we see the industry centralize hydrogen generation? This would, of course, come with challenges, particularly in terms of infrastructure and transportation. How would the hydrogen be transported i.e., by pipelines or by ships and if shipped which hydrogen carriers would be used i.e., ammonia, methanol, LOHC or liquid hydrogen? There are still many questions to be answered.

At John Crane, we keep a close eye on the hydrogen market because every development is an opportunity for us to drive progress.

What is required to unlock more renewable hydrogen projects?

One observation is that blue hydrogen — essentially, conventional hydrogen production combined with carbon capture and storage (CCUS) — is moving the fastest in the current market. This isn’t surprising; it’s a mature technology with the potential for further emission reduction by moving to the latest technology such as autothermal reforming (ATR). In the long run, societies of course want to focus on renewable hydrogen, and blue hydrogen is seen as a transition to enable faster rollout and upscaling of hydrogen infrastructure.

From a renewable hydrogen standpoint, numerous elements could unlock more projects. One, which we just mentioned, is the regulatory framework. Each country has its own regulations, which makes it difficult to replicate designs. Even if you build the same plant in Europe and Australia, you would need two designs to comply with these two sets of local regulations. A global standardized approach would help accelerate progress.

Currently, a green hydrogen project requires an offtake agreement to get to final investment decision (FID). Since hydrogen isn’t a publicly traded commodity, you need some guaranteed offtake so that you can finance your project. We’ve seen some private companies move ahead in this regard; some refineries in Europe, for example, have announced offtake of a certain amount of green hydrogen from, let’s say, 2025 onward.

We see the same in the green steel sector. It’s a very exciting sector that has a strong business case. We also see some countries offering support schemes — similar to a contract for difference — in which they commit to subsidize the additional price gap from gray to green hydrogen. The examples that immediately come to mind are in Europe and Japan.

Another interesting point is co-location. If you have the chance to co-locate an electrolyzer plant next to a user of oxygen, for example, that could be a blue hydrogen plant with oxy fuel combustion i.e., ATR. Another example would be a steel plant with oxy fuel combustion. In either case, we could minimize one major waste stream in the green hydrogen plant by making use of oxygen that would otherwise be vented. It also improves the efficiency of the plant with oxy fuel combustion compared to regular combustion and leads to further reduction in power consumption.

If you split water, it splits into hydrogen and oxygen. These days, we see many plants venting the oxygen off into the atmosphere. But this is essentially a waste stream. If you can make use of it, it will have a commercial benefit and improve the efficiency of the electrolyzer. This is another example of enhancing efficiency, reducing prices and therefore, making the product more viable.

How cost-effective is hydrogen compared to natural gas or steel production?

There’s clearly a gap to be closed. We would likely need to get to the gigawatt scale to bring down the price of hydrogen so that it’s cost-competitive with natural gas or steel production. The market needs to mature, as does the technology. But even though we all know that hydrogen is not cost-competitive today, steel is considered a high emitter. Steel production is considered as high emitters and if we need to decarbonize steel, we will need hydrogen.

One other perspective to consider is the price of green steel, which is more expensive than conventional steel. However, there is a business case for it. An industry expert was talking to us recently about the automotive industry’s desire for green steel, even though they know it’s more expensive. If you break down the amount of steel required for one car, it might not be a deal-breaker because vehicle prices increase yearly already and the industry could see significant value in decarbonizing. Another use case we’re seeing is tech companies that are trying to decarbonize their supply chains. These early adopters are willing to move forward with green steel even at a higher price.

Do you consider reciprocating compressors for hydrogen?

Yes. Reciprocating compressors appear throughout the new hydrogen value chain, especially in small- and medium-scale hydrogen plants. Reciprocating compressors are often required to increase pressure to a high level. For example, for the mobility sector, in the case of compressor hydrogen, the tank would need to accommodate pressure up to 800 bar.

The difficulty occurs when volumes increase, as this requires numerous reciprocating compressors next to each other leading to a large footprint. With increasing volumes and flows the case for a turbo compressor becomes the best economical choice to handle much higher volumes and flows especially at low-to-medium pressures, but those machines have limitations in high pressures. We see more hybrid installations in which turbo compressors are combined with a reciprocating compressor to go to higher pressures but at lower volumes.

What is the typical leak from a reciprocating compressor and how do you minimize cell leaks?

John Crane's sealing technologies sit in the rotating series, which are not reciprocating. Reciprocating compressors are piston-type compressors that use a device such as a piston ring. These are often manufactured by the compressor OEM itself.

However, we do see a market trend of moving from lubricated to non-lubricated compressors. It’s claimed that these non-lubricated compressors have fewer leakages, although we cannot quantify this. However, the wear is much higher, which requires you to frequently change out those rings. There’s always a tradeoff. You also need to weigh uptime versus leakage risks.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. However, this is just our observation since it's not the focus of our technologies and solutions. When it comes to, let's say, leakage rates on compressors in general, we typically combine our dry gas seals with our Seal Gas Recovery system. This captures the leakage and feeds it back into the system rather than having it leak into the atmosphere.

What is your view on technology readiness to support critical equipment on large-scale hydrogen projects?

We can already support gigawatt-scale green hydrogen projects with today’s state-of-the-art technology. As I mentioned in the webinar, we supply dry gas seals, couplings and pump seals to the largest green hydrogen project in development in the Middle East, which has two gigawatts of electrolyzer capacity and an ammonia plant behind that. Our product itself represents state-of-the-art hydrogen technology, as does the equipment being used. There will always be technological improvements and developments, but we can support large-scale hydrogen projects today.

We’ve talked about some of the challenges and opportunities with high-speed compressors. When they are prevalent and on the market, you will likely be able to realize a smaller plant footprint. This means that future plants will be more cost-effective and take up a smaller physical footprint. This is great to keep in mind, but it shouldn’t stop progress across the current hydrogen ecosystem, which we would describe as being in Phase One.

The same goes for small- and medium-sized projects. There’s significant innovation happening, and it’s incredibly exciting — but you can start building now with the current technology for electrolysis, in terms of compressors, heat exchangers, piping and all the materials required for this process. By doing so, we gain key learnings that help accelerate our progress.

When you’re “boots on the ground” in industrial-scale plants, there are still many learnings — not only from the equipment side but also operational procedures. These learnings then flow back into the ecosystem to help us develop the next generation of hydrogen plants. It’s a natural cycle, and that’s why we believe in not holding back. It will only get better, but we can also make progress today.

What excites you most about the latest developments in renewable hydrogen?

The political will to make this happen is exciting and great to see. More politicians are coming forward with goals and objectives, but it’s not just that; they are understanding the need for infrastructure and are providing funding. We’re seeing governments step up. Since we’re based in Europe, we’re particularly excited to see what's happening within the European Union, which is funding Projects of Common Interest (PCIs) across the member states.

From an innovation standpoint, electrolyzer technology is maturing. It’s scaling up from the tens of megawatts to the hundreds of megawatts and now reaching the gigawatt scale. Compression technology is developing to meet intermittency requirements, with faster-turning high-speed compressors being developed in all corners of the value chain. This is a much-needed development.

We need to get to the level in which hydrogen — and particularly, renewable hydrogen — is cost-effective. Technological innovation will play a significant part in driving progress.

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