Is hydrogen lucrative and sustainable natural gas possible?

The University of Manchester, UK, is studying renewables like hydrogen, and natural gas fossil fuel, to device low-carbon solutions to reduce emissions

What are the challenges with renewable energy sources like hydrogen, as well as using natural gas? 

While organisations strive to meet energy demand, there is also an emphasis on renewables and how to leverage other forms of power like these to reduce carbon emissions and sustain power supplies at the same time.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the challenges they face with these forms of energy production. 

The troubles of natural gas power

Natural gas is not considered sustainable, but it is the least polluting fossil fuel in use today. 

Drilling for natural gas is not only disruptive to the environment, but it has also been a cause for concern among communities—particularly when gas leakage can lead to disturbance of local people and wildlife. While developments were made to reduce the level of disruption and pollution caused by tapping into natural gas wells, it remains an unsuitable solution for a zero-emission world. 

Hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is the only solution for producing natural gas, which is the cause of disruption to the land itself as the fuel is produced. 

Challenges of the clean hydrogen production 

A further solution that seems underutilised is hydrogen, which is making a turn but still isn’t sustainable enough to maintain a steady supply of energy. 

One of the main challenges here is cost as more organisations are looking to separate themselves from the past and take on zero-emission alternatives, investment is required to ensure that hydrogen can be produced, kept, and used safely and consistently. 

While government funding and research are able to reduce the cost of hydrogen, there is still more emphasis on other renewables like wind and solar power

Finding a solution for sustainable power 

An international team of scientists, led by The University of Manchester, is set to develop and implement an innovative technology that offers a cost-effective method to produce synthetic gas and pure hydrogen while minimising direct carbon dioxide emissions. Known as the REthinking low Carbon hYdrogen production by Chemical Looping rEforming (RECYCLE) project, it aims to construct and evaluate a fully integrated pilot unit for hydrogen production at the University.

The technology uses specialised fixed bed reactors to convert various materials into hydrogen gas, while efficiently capturing and separating carbon dioxide in the process. This approach presents a competitive and economically viable solution for generating low-carbon hydrogen using natural gas, bio-based streams, and waste materials.

Funding for the £5.1m collaborative project is provided by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, as part of the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio (NZIP). The project involves the participation of five esteemed industrial partners specialising in engineering for sustainable development. These partners include Johnson Matthey, TotalEnergies, OneTech, Kent, Helical Energy, and Element Energy.

“The feasibility study carried out during Phase 1 demonstrated great potential for low carbon hydrogen in the UK market and it has huge implications for several industrial stakeholders,” says Dr Vincenzo Spallina, Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester and Principal Investigator of the RECYCLE project. 

“This project will demonstrate its feasibility at a pre-commercial scale to increase awareness of the next steps towards commercial implementation. The demonstration plant will be installed in the James Chadwick Building where we are currently renovating the existing pilot hall area to establish the Sustainable Industrial Hub for Research and Innovation on sustainable process technologies.

“Our students will have the fantastic opportunity to see the next-generation hydrogen plant in operation as a unique teaching and learning experience.”

According to the recently released Powering Up Britain: Energy Security Plan, the UK government has set ambitious targets for low-carbon hydrogen production capacity. By 2025, they aim to have two gigawatts of such capacity already operational or under construction, with a goal of reaching 10 gigawatts by 2030, pending affordability and cost-effectiveness considerations.

“Hydrogen, known as the super fuel of the future, is critical to delivering UK energy security and clean, sustainable growth,” says Minister for Energy Efficiency and Green Finance Lord Callanan.

“I’m delighted that we have awarded funding to The University of Manchester so that they can build and test their first-of-a-kind hydrogen technology. This will generate opportunities for UK businesses to export their expertise around the world whilst supporting our ambition to have amongst the cheapest energy in Europe.”

The RECYCLE project is a significant opportunity to demonstrate ongoing innovation in developing resilient and economically viable solutions for a low-carbon future. It aligns with the government's vision of promoting sustainable growth and ensuring energy security.

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