About this episode
In this episode, we are delighted to have Paul Martin join us to explore the challenges of clean hydrogen scale up, the market forces, and Hopium driving current government and industry activity.
In Part 1 of our discussions with Paul, we reflect on the history of hydrogen as a fuel, which traces it way back to the 1990s, the rise of Hopium and the associated belief systems that don’t pay the attention to thermodynamics that they should! We explore the current sources and uses of hydrogen, the ‘colours of euphemisms’ and why hydrogen is good in its current use cases but generally an inappropriate compound for energy applications.
We close discussing green hydrogen in its current uses has inherent advantages being produced and then converted nearby at scale into advantaged industrial compounds.
CB: Hello everyone, and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. My name is Cameron Begley, managing Director of Spiegare, and joining me today from Toronto in Canada, we have the great privilege of having Paul Martin join us. Paul’s background is one of chemical engineering, which makes us naturally kindred spirits, but his background is a deep history in working with Zeton over two and a half decades, ultimately as a senior technical fellow and engineer. But most recently, and indeed, what we’re really interested to explore with Paul today is he’s a founding member of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, alongside his role in being a principal with Split Fire Research, which is his own consulting and advisory firm. And we’re really looking forward today to exploring the tech transfer challenges and the broader challenges of green hydrogen. And with that, Paul, Hello.
PM: Hi. Glad to be here.
CB: Yeah, great. It’s great to have you, Paul. And the first question that really strikes me, how did the passion for hydrogen and how did you get into hydrogen so strongly, given being a chemical engineer? Hydrogen is a thing to do, but the passion that you have for it and the interest is strong. How did that come about?
PM: Well. I came by it honestly, I started looking around for undergraduate research kind of positions while I was doing my undergrad in chemical engineering, and I ended up doing polymer modification, doing hydrogenations, and that’s what I did my masters on. I worked in my undergrad, and I built an apparatus as one of my co-op work terms and had to contend with hydrogen’s tendency to want to sneak out through every cranny and diffuse through things and cause all kinds of problems. But I also was seduced a little bit by the notion that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future. Back in the late eighties, I was thinking hydrogen could potentially be the fuel of the future. And here we are in 2022, and I still think hydrogen is the fuel of the future, except I’ve now concluded it will never be the fuel of the present.
PM: As I said, I can’t buy it. Honestly.
CB: It’s a fascinating trajectory, Paul, because I went through that hydrogen experience personally a couple of decades after you in the sort of the mid-noughties it would have been, when hydrogen and the fuel cell phenomena really burst forward sort of through 2004 to 2010. I think it was Ballard Systems that was sort of leading the charge on the fuel cells and hydrogen conferences. I had my hydrogen bubble burst around that time.
PM: Mine burst a little earlier than that. Yeah, clearly in the late nineties I was involved. So, I worked for 26 years for Zeton and I helped Zeton grow; Zeton designs and built pilot plants for the chemical process industry. And we have two main centers of operation, one of them in Burlington, Ontario, which is near Toronto where I live, and the other in Enskida in the Netherlands. And as part of my work for Zeton, I was doing project after project for first Texaco and then Chevron after Chevron had purchased them, related to trying to make small reformers for making hydrogen to supply fuel cells. Originally it was going to be in vehicles, and then later it was combined heat and power in homes. And I worked with quite a team, and we issued a lot of patents. I’m listed as co-inventor on all sorts of things from plasma reformers to anode tail gas oxidizers with heat recovery, to the multistage reformer that we had ultimately come up with. And they built quite a few of in an attempt to try to turn that into a line of business that ultimately never went anywhere. And the story I love to tell people is that. They were flying me down to Houston for these meetings and sometimes for quite a while. It was once every couple of weeks, I’d be sitting in a meeting room full of engineers, earnestly working away on trying to make these small reformers and make them cheaper and make them work better and make them make a product that you could actually feed a fuel cell without killing it and so on, on. And invariably, after a day like this, if there was a day following, we’d end up going out for dinner or a few beers, and after a few Shiner Bocks, which is what they tend to drink down in Houston, eventually, somebody, generally in a big, broad Texas accent would come out and say, “y’all realize this is horseshit, right?” And then you say, yes, pure steaming horse crap. Irretrievably bad. And there’s no way that we’re ever going to make this into anything. But man will be back at it tomorrow, earnestly plowing our sweat and tears into it to try to turn it into something it can never really be. And yeah, I spent an awful lot of time dealing with it in that context and lost my enthusiasm for it being so.
CB: The question that then is immediately prompted in my mind, Paul, is, you know, they are, they are running a business. They have to deploy capital in sensible ways in order to generate returns to shareholders. So, if that’s the view from, I’ll say that the middle management. Why are they doing it?
PM: Well, that was many years ago and what’s old is new again, you know, late 1990s really, the emphasis was California emissions reductions for vehicles. That was the thing. Oh, my goodness, we can’t be burning gasoline as good a job as the combustion engineers and catalyst developers and so on had done of trying to reduce emissions from tailpipes. The idea of not having a tailpipe or having just water vapor come out of the tailpipe and then dealing with all the problems at steam methane reformer, stacked outlet or something was just a lot more appealing. And the lithium-ion battery had been invented. It was way too expensive for anybody to think of using in vehicles at that time. So basically, that was the focus at the time. And then they rapidly realized that onboard reforming in vehicles, it’s just a nonstarter, it wasn’t going to happen. So, they switched over to combined heat and power in homes, making a case that you could use the waste heat from the fuel cell in order to provide heat when you needed heat. And the reformer generated some waste heat which you could use to raise steam and whatever. There was a bunch of stuff that you could do for trying. It was just too complicated and didn’t really make a whole lot of sense. And of course, air blown, reforming, partial oxidation and so on. It just was wrong headed from the start.
CB: What’s interesting there is it was a policy signal in the 90s that got that moving amongst the oil and gas industry and now we find ourselves some 20 to 25 years later also with what looks to be a regulatory pull, which is carbon. And the emission standards in California continue to tighten. But you’ve then got the rise of low emissions aviation fuels and lower emissions for shipping applications and so on and so forth. So, what we’re is a response to a regulatory signal again, perhaps treading over the same ground.
PM: Well, let’s, let’s be clear that what’s changed is that we’re much more serious about climate change than we were in the late nineties. I mean, I was dead serious about climate change in 1991 when I was doing my master’s degree I and I stayed the heck out of the oil and gas industry for that reason. Now. I ended up working for a company that did pilot plants. And we served a lot of interests, including doing a lot of projects for the major oil majors and then major materials companies and, like, a who’s who of the people doing cool chemical engineering in the world, including a lot of startups that were trying to put these guys out of business if they could or to steal pieces of their business or the like. And one of the things that you realize when you’re in that business for a while is that if you want to decarbonize anything the regulatory drivers got to come first. And it has to be durable, it has to be bankable because otherwise the smart money is just going to stay the heck away from it. I can kind of summarise, sadly, a lot of my time at Zeton, I retired from Zeton in March of last year, and when out on my own as a consultant, I’ve been a consultant the whole time but I’m now doing it, that’s my principal gig. A lot of my time Zeton, people would come in and they’d be smart and motivated and innovative and come up with a cool idea. And they’d say, hey, we’ve got this great idea to decarbonize ‘X’, whatever ‘X’ was. And all we need is about $50 a ton based on our preliminary calculations, and we’re all set. You know, we’re away to the races and you’d build a pilot platform and did best jobs you could, and they’d run it and they’d realize that, oh, well, this thing doesn’t run the simulation. It’s not $50 a ton, it’s $100 a ton. Then they’d say, okay, we’re going to go for it because the world is going to take climate change seriously. And of course, the world doesn’t put in the $100, put the process, and they go bankrupt. So, if you want to eliminate an emission, you either have to make it illegal, so you have to regulate it out of existence, or you have to make it cost money so the market knows, oh, I don’t want to make this bad thing. It costs me money to dispose of it, so I want to avoid it. The thing is, people are addicted to what I’ve been I latched onto this term that’s not mine, but when I heard it, I went, that’s exactly it. It’s hopium. Okay, it’s hopium.
CB: And I want to talk about hopium.
PM: It’s hopium. So basically, what’s going on in the world is that you have people expecting that we scientists and engineers and technologists are going to lower from the sky a god like the Greek plays used to do. They would lower a god from a winch onto the stage and the statue of the god would be there and the god would resolve all the problems in the plot. And they called this deus ex machina in Latin, meaning God from Scene. And so, people expect a deus ex machina solution to just appear that allows us to keep living exactly the same way that we did before, just without the CO2 emissions. And they don’t expect us to pay a cent for it. In fact, they want it to be cheaper and they don’t expect to have any inconvenience. They want it to be either. And they don’t want to make any compromise. And in fact, they don’t even like changing, even if it’s a change for the better. And it’s just, you know, this is just immature, childish thinking. We’re not being adults about it.
CB: So, setting all of that aside then, Paul, there’s obviously no problem then. And it will all just get resolved as God descends from the heavens and solves the problem, right. Does this demonstrate that God female Chemical Engineer is this the resolution that we, is this the conclusion we have to form now?
PM: Well, I’m a firm adherent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the thing about the adherence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, we Pastafarians, as we call ourselves, we realize that our God is drunk most of the time and not all that bright. And that explains a lot. Yeah. And so, we don’t expect the Flying Spaghetti Monster to come down and fix everything with his noodle-y appendages. We figure it’s our job. If we want it fixed, we better fix it. Because if he touches something he’s probably going to screw it up.
CB: So hopium has certainly taken hold in the green hydrogen discussion, and it comes in many forms. And I think what I’m interested to explore here is the hopium is almost the psychological condition you just described there, Paul. But what are the things setting aside the thermodynamics of all of this for a moment, there are handbrakes, there are forces against the rise of green hydrogen in the form of black, blue, and gray. I’d like to unpack a little bit of the anti-hopium forces before diving into the actual intoxicating product that we consume, which is the hopium of green hydrogen. So, I’m interested in sort of those countervailing forces that you’ve been seeing.
PM: We can dig into that to great depth if we wish. Really, the issue distills down to something extremely simple. In fact, I’ve cut it down to one of these little two-paneled memes. Hip hop artist, musician named Drake, who lives here in Toronto. Now, he lives in a much nicer house than mine, in very tiny part of Toronto, where very wealthy people live. But there’s two pictures of Drake, and in one picture, Drake is averting his eyes and wincing and looking decidedly unhappy. But something and beside that picture, I have written hydrogen as a fuel. And then in the next image, Drake is smiling and pointing and nodding, nodding with approval. And in that one it says green hydrogen to replace black hydrogen. And it’s literally that simple. The problem isn’t with hydrogen. Hydrogen’s an awesome molecule that’s got tremendous decarbonization potential for use in all sorts of applications. None of them are fuel. So, the problem is not that hydrogen is being. Hydrogen is being pitched as if it were a decarbonization solution when it isn’t one. It’s being pitched for applications where it isn’t a decarbonization solution. The reality of hydrogen in the world is not really very well known. I certainly had to do the research on it, and when I dug into to, it, basically substantially all the hydrogen in the world is made from fossil materials with carbon cap, about 120,000,000 tons a year as either pure hydrogen or hydrogen in syngas mixtures. So, mixtures of CO, all of that is made from natural gas or coal or petroleum, about as much as made from petroleum as is used in petroleum refining, which was a surprise to me. And a lot of it is used for applications that are durable post decarbonization, because we don’t waste it as a fuel. And if you think about it, if you’re making it from a fuel, using it as a fuel would be mad. If all you wanted was heat, you make hydrogen first. That would be dumb. It would be kind of going backwards. It would be costing you a lot of money, too. So, the problem is that the hydrogen industry, which isn’t, well, I guess not really the hydrogen industry, it’s kind of the people that are pitching the idea of hydrogen as a fuel being some kind of a decarbonization strategy, which I think, as I said, is totally wrong. They picked up on these ‘Colours of euphemism’, as I call them, wanted to add this kind of ridiculous color spectrum of hydrogen that’s gotten to include all sorts of crazy things now. But basically, they euphemized what hydrogen production really is by calling it saying that hydrogen production by steam methane reforming of natural gas is gray, and there’s nothing gray about it. We just don’t have a word in English for blacker than black. You know what, what’s 40% blacker than black? That’s hydrogen in Terms of two emissions per unit of energy derived by burning It. That’s hydrogen made by Steamthane reforming its blacker than black. It’s not gray.
CB: Blacker than black?
PM: Yeah. And coal is even worse. I mean, coal per year, it’s like double or two and a half times as much CO2 emissions per Joule of hydrogen derived from coal than from Just Burning Coal. And that’s how almost all hydrogen in the world is made right now. It’s made by those two. So, hydrogen is black in the world, and it needs to not be black anymore because decarbonization is A real.
CB: The Colors of Euphemism is Just such a terrific phrase. Paul I really do like that. And I guess what I think I’m hearing here is that it’s not actually about the color scheme and it’s not necessarily about how it’s made. Although that’s important. It’s the use cases that are distorting the conversation. If we simplified it to moving to green hydrogen for the current use cases of hydrogen, that in and of itself would be a noble, sensible trajectory pursuit to undertake. And it would green that part of the petrochemicals and industrial spectrum. But it’s the extension of the use of hydrogen building the narrative out to these other really poor thermodynamically violent use cases that is creating the green hopium or the hydrogen hopium push. Would that be a reasonable assessment of what’s happening here?
PM: Almost, almost, quite close. Almost.
CB: No, no please.
PM: Yeah. The one thing that you need to take into account is that there are use cases of hydrogen that we, that we use today that are not going to survive beyond, beyond decarbonization. And that’s actually great good news, because it basically means of that 120,000,000 tons of hydrogen that we use in the world today, about 90 million of it is used in things that will survive decarbonization, but 30 will go away because we’ll no longer be desulfurized. Burn them. Right. So, anybody that’s taking green hydrogen made by electrolyzing water, using renewable electricity, and then feeding it into a petroleum refinery in order to decarbonize hydrogen production that’s used to desulfurize fossils before we burn them is really engaged in kind of a greenwashing exercise reductions associated with doing it. It’s better than not doing it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing. So really,
PM: In the future. Of the 40 million tons or so that we use in refining, about 30 will go away and about ten will stay. Because we’re still going to need to desulfurize things that we use, you know, petroleum that we use to make chemicals and plastics and like so we’re going to be using about ten instead of 40 million tons per year and decarbonizing. That is important. But that’s only ten of the 90. Yeah, yeah. So, the other 80 or half of it is ammonium production, and we need that. And the other 30 is for things that we need very much, too. So, for instance, one of them that a lot of people don’t realize is there’s an awful lot of hydrogen, not as pure hydrogen, but used in the form of syngas that’s used to reduce iron ore to iron metal. And that’s not new. That has been done for a long time and it serves a very important purpose in the steel making business. And we’re going to be doing more of that in the future, just without the Co, without the carbon monoxide. We’re going to be doing it with pure hydrogen, and we know that for sure. So that’s a growth area for green hydrogen, in my opinion. And then, of course, there’s methanol and hydro formulations.
CB: A few other things, yeah, a bit of a tail after you deal with the main use cases. So, one of the phenomena that I’ve observed, and I suspect you’ve observed as well, Paul, and this is something that we’ve seen actually quite broadly across a number of areas where innovation is involved, which is the role of the announcement and the announceable. And this almost most again, a little bit of the hopium in this. And if I announce it, it deigns it to be true, and if I announce it, it is therefore done. And there’s been umpteenth announcements in green hydrogen, in all sorts of green hydrogen, green ammonia related. Investments, research programs, startups and all sorts of variations. Coalitions, government programs, et cetera, et cetera. And another podcast that I suspect we both listen to on Cleaning Up with Michael Libre. He’s also explored some of this, particularly with regards to Japan, which I found quite fascinating too. Beyond announcing things, I’d just like to take our listeners through the basic thermodynamics of trying to make hydrogen green and the horrors of trying to then use it for energy.
PM: Yeah, this is a really good point. So, as I mentioned, we need about 90 million tons of hydrogen a year for sure in a decarbonized future, plus whatever extra we need, because we’re going to be decarbonizing steel production and so on. So, these are all logical, reasonable uses that don’t involve fuels in any way, just decarbonizing that. Optimistically. So, using really, you know, electrolyzers that you can buy but you couldn’t afford, because they’re running at such low current densities that in order to get the Efficiencies up there, that you couldn’t afford to buy them. But using really top-notch stuff and getting 50 kilowatt hours per kilogram as an efficiency, that would take 4500 terawatt hours of electricity per year. And in 2019, all the wind and solar on earth added up to 2100 terawatt hours. So less than half. And that’s just to decarbonize the portion of hydrogen that is durable post decarbonization that’s not wasting any of it as a fuel or wasting any of it to make fuels by trying to run thermodynamics backwards. Now, this arises from the issue is that thermodynamics thermodynamics, of course, is reversible, which means that it kills you both ways sometimes, if you will, because there’s always a second law drag that kind of screws you up anytime that you change from one form of energy to another. And so, the issue is that making hydrogen is about 70% efficient on a lower heating value basis, whether you start with methane or electricity. And that’s about 83% on a higher heating value basis. So that takes into account the heat of condensation of the product, water, which engines fuel cells and high temperature heating can’t make any use of. So that is lost. So that that heat of condensation is 6.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram. And it’s just gone. You must put it in.
CB: Can’t get it back.
PM: It’s gone for good. And then on top of it, you have all the all the usual things like you’re moving currents around so there are resistances and you’re trying to push ions around and it takes energy to do that. Or you’re doing high temperature chemical reactions and there’s heat loss and then there’s heat integration problems, and you have to purify the product so there’s some losses. And then, of course, all of that said, 70% efficiency on a good day and much less than that. Believe me, you can get much lower than that. And to afford it, you’re going to be lower than that. And then your problem is that you’ve made hydrogen.
CB: Well, the good thing is you’ve made hydrogen, but the downside is that you’ve made hydrogen.
PM: That’s correct. The downside is you’ve made this thing that has no energy density per unit volume. And so, you have to either compress it or liquefy it in order to be able to do anything with it. And both of those things take energy and liquefying it takes so much energy that’s just mind boggling, honestly. People that are pitching liquid hydrogen as a way to move hydrogen around really need their heads examined. They are just delusional, in my opinion, looking at it in some detail. The other big thing is there’s this thing that I’ve been referring to is the second sin of thermodynamics, and it gets committed a lot.
CB: I’ve seen you refer to that a few times. Yeah.
PM: Open license on committing the second sin of thermodynamics. And the way I like to describe the second sin of thermodynamics is, comparing money. So, we have money in units of dollars, and I have $100 in one hand and I have $100 in the other hand. And people will say, okay, well, you have an equal amount of money on either side. But I’ve forgotten to mention that in one hand, I’m holding 100 American dollars, on the other hand, I’m holding 100 Jamaican dollars. They’re both amounts of money he measured in dollars, but they’re not of equal value. And that’s true of heat and work. Heat and work. Heat or chemical energy and proxies for heat and mechanical energy or electricity or proxies for thermodynamic work. They’re not equal in Exergy value, and hence in their ability to do work. And hence they’re not equal in terms of their actual value in money or people pay for it. And yet people are constantly committing the second sin of thermodynamics by saying, oh, well, a jewel is a jewel. They’re all energy. Yeah. And they lead themselves into all kinds of incorrect conclusions as a result of forgetting about the potential to do work and so on. And one of the big things, the big problems with hydrogen as an energy vector, an energy storage medium, or worst of all, as a fuel, is that you’re taking a giant step backward when you’re starting with electricity, which is work on tap, like Exergy value of unity, and you make chemical energy out of it with losses. And now you’ve actually, from an exogenous perspective, you’ve taken a giant step backwards because you have to convert it again back to thermodynamic work at the other end in a device like a turbine or a fuel cell. And those devices are even less efficient than the electrolysis was, best case. So, 50, 60% efficiency on an LHV basis, by the time you have these steps, electrolysis storage at about 90% efficiency if you’re going to use compressed gas, and way worse than that, if you’re using liquid, burning it to some other molecule, like even worse. And then you convert it back to working again to electricity in a turbine or fuel cell, your best-case efficiency, best that you can afford, is 37%. And that’s a terrible battery.
CB: That’s a terrible outcome.
PM: Really terrible battery. So, I don’t give that credence. I just don’t think that there are high enough value applications that are willing to. People that are doing this are willing to convert three joules or three kilowatt hours into 1 kilowatt hour, pay for the other two, plus pay a whole bunch of capital for capital equipment necessary as a reward for that, they get not just chemical energy, right. Or they get their work back, a third of their work back, but they get it in the form of something that’s big and hence difficult to store and difficult to transport. Hydrogen’s problem. As a fuel, it’s neither efficient nor effective. Gasoline is another example. Gasoline is very inefficient. Gasoline engines are inefficient. Taking gasoline is only about 80% efficient in terms of energy efficiency as well. But what you get as a result is this liquid with a super high energy density.
CB: Super high energy density. And it’s convenient, and you can move it around, and it ticks all- it has the benefit of incumbency now, too. Yeah. Which makes it even harder to displace.
PM: So that’s the great beauty, beauty of gasoline, is that it’s the triumph of effectiveness over efficiency. But hydrogen is neither efficient nor effective. And that’s the problem. So then people want to waste even more energy by making hydrogen into another molecule, like ammonia or methanol.
CB: Beautiful segue. A beautiful segue. Thank you. Because you dropped the clue just a little bit earlier, where you said, so you get all this hydrogen, but because of the volume it takes, you don’t want to compress it, you don’t want to liquefy it. And industry practice, I would suggest that you would know better than myself, Paul, is you consume the hydrogen quite close to where you make it, typically distributed through a pipeline. Through a pipeline or over the fence or whatever it is. Taking that as sensible industry practice, we’ve now generated all this. We’ve got our renewable green hydrogen, now we have to do something with it on the spot. So there are two lines of questioning, though. Two submarines I want to explore with you rather than questioning. The first one I want to explore is what do you do with it if you’re making it in large volumes in a single site, large renewable energy, wind, solar, integrated. And the other area I want to explore with you is that notion of distributed production, because this has captured the imagination, particularly here in Australia, where you’ve got an interest in having some resilient supply, some domestic supply of fertilizer. Well, distributed production might be really good because we got a little bit like Canada, a lot like Canada. We got long distances between locations. Could we do a distributed play of some sort? So, I’ve got all this hydrogen now from mass masses of renewable energy, electrolyzing water, to give me hydrogen. What should I do next? So, I’m not going to liquefy it. I’m not going to liquefy it. I’m certainly not going to liquefy it, and I don’t really want to compress it. What do I do?
PM: So, this is the crux of the problem. There are these places in the world, Western Australia being one of them. Chile is another. West Coast of Africa. There are a number of sites in Namibia being one of them, but there are others where there’s this perfect combination of wind and solar, where the land cools down and the wind blows in off the ocean every night. You get high-capacity factor renewals. And the other thing that these places all have in common is that nobody lives there. Not to be insulting to the people that live in Western Australia, there are some, and I’ve met a few of them, I’ve been there, but there aren’t enough to consume enough electricity to really worry about. They’re not a major market. So, the logical thing that passes through people’s mind is, how do we use this high-capacity factor renewable hybrid of wind and solar in order to make money by selling stuff to other people? And why wouldn’t you do that? Of course, you’re going to do that. That makes perfect sense. Well, you’re not going to sell them hydrogen because you can’t move it.
CB: I think we’ve concluded that. So, what do I do?
PM: So, what you do? What you do, it really depends on it really depends on what your motivations are. If your motivation is to decarbonize something, what you do is you make ammonia, or if you’re wonderfully lucky and you’re co-located with a large source of biogenic CO2, then you can make methanol, which is even better. But the nice thing about ammonia is that we make so much of it, and it is so emissions intensive right now. You can make it, you can liquefy it, you can definitely transport. It the logical thing to do. And of course, you can have a co-located nitrate plant. You can make nitrate and then make ammonium nitrate. If there’s co-located CO2, you can make urea. And those things are quite easy to move. And then hydrogen isn’t that bad to move as a cargo where the daft people get involved. They start saying, okay, well, we’re going to ship ammonia to places as if it were the new LNG. And then they’re going to crack ammonia back again to nitrogen and hydrogen and we’ll use the hydrogen or worse still, we’re going to burn it in a turbine or even dumber as a co feed in a coal fired power plant.
CB: Yeah, I’ve heard all those things.
PM: Goodness. And when I hear that stuff, I just wince because one of the principles of safety and design is you don’t use a toxic gas as a fuel. Intrinsic safety goes a long way and of course toxicity is manageable. But a toxic gas, a toxic liquefied gas, especially one that’s toxic to aquatic systems at such low concentrations as ammonia, is the notion of using it as the new LNG. Even if it were affordable, which it isn’t, but even if it were, is just daft. It just fails. Fails basic, basic risk management, from my perspective. I think the people that are pitching it are pitching it for economic reasons as opposed to because they think that it will actually be a decarbonization solution that’s worthy or worthwhile, really. What they’re saying is it’s easier to make ammonia because you can pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere anywhere. And so you don’t need your co-located source of biogenic CO2 to make something like methanol, which, although it is toxic, it’s not a gas at room temperature. It’s a liquid. And there’s toxicity. And there’s toxicity. I mean, ammonia is just dreadful toxic material from the point of view, especially as something like a ship’s fuel. Oh, my goodness. The thought of having poor ships engineers down with an ammonia leak, and they’re there in their level A suits and their self-contained breathing apparatus, because you have to keep it not just out of your lungs, you have to keep it out of your eyes and off your skin. It’s dangerous. It’s just not even worth thinking about.
CB: Your contention there, I think, Paul, is ammonia is fine so long as you use a bunker fuel as your fuel, not ammonia as the fuel. And ammonia is also fine, but not with the intention of splitting it back apart into nitrogen and hydrogen, but perhaps using that ammonia to then feed a subsequent ammonium nitrate or urea production facility. If you’ve made the decision not to do that conversion at the point at which you made the ammonia, which is kind of the more traditional approach, is that sort of the argument you’re making there?
PM: Pretty much, yeah. So, ammonia is a massive commodity chemical, just like hydrogen is, and with massive commodity chemicals, vertical scale is your friend. By that I mean the marginal cost, the cost of a kilogram of the product gets lower and lower the bigger the plants are, all the way up to quite giant scale. To give you an idea of what I mean by that, they are building a black ammonia plant in Texas City right now. Not planning it not planning, it not designing. It is building.
PM: It actually something that’s building rather than announcing that’s. Right. Yeah, fantastic. Air Products is involved, and I think it’s their biggest single train SMR that they’ve ever done. This is the steam methane reformer that there’s no carbon capture even thought of here. It’s not happening with carbon capture. And it’s a billion-dollar plant. And that’s kind of the scale of ammonia production in the world. A 300-million-dollar ammonia plant is pretty small, and it makes pretty expensive ammonia. You’re not going to be making ammonia in little ammonia plants all over the place. You’re going to be making it a big, centralized ones, which means that you need access to giant quantities of green hydrogen, which means you need access to giant quantities of renewables at scale with high capacity factors. So that it’s cheap. Okay. So, it’s important that the electricity be cheap, but it’s also important that the electricity be there all the time or as close to all the time as cheap.
CB: So, the industrial argument that emerges there is that you vertically integrate from your high capacity factor, renewables through hydrogen to ammonia, to the next molecule of choice, whether it’s ammonium nitrate, whether it’s urea, or you can take your hydrogen-
PM: Or just hydrous, just ship it. I mean, we ship about around numbers. Again, about 10% of the hydrous that we make, we ship as an hydro and as a cargo. It’s safe enough.
CB: No matter which way you cut it. Trying to get to a less bruised as opposed to green a less bruised hydrogen through either coal or natural gas or even crude oil sources is a fool’s errand in terms of cost, in terms of thermodynamics in terms of both Capex and Opex, and the resulting cost or price point for the arising CO2. Setting aside the methane momentarily, is unlikely to be cost competitive as the price of CO2. Everyone talks about tens of dollars or tens of euros. People aren’t talking about hundreds of euros. Albeit as the market tightens. In a regulated market, the price of the permit should go up over time, as there’s a constraint on the number of permits. But in principle, as you said, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand here.
PM: Yeah, well, we are we’re talking in Canada, not just talking. We’ve had two federal elections and a Supreme Court challenge, and our carbon taxes stood up to it and it’s gradually increasing, and it’s had to do CAD170 a ton by 2030.
CB: So, it might be in the money?
PM: Yeah. Well, you know what? The blue hydrogen at that point might make sense as a way to make hydrogen, if you’re going to use hydrogen, of course, what is most of the hydrogen that Alberta used for? It’s not used for ammonia production, although some is. Most of it used to upgrade tar sand. So, honestly, until that gets fixed, it’s kind of, again, a fool’s errand. But of course, the trouble is the guys in Alberta that are getting government money for these projects, what they want to do with it is blended into natural gas or use it in vehicles, which is nonsense. I mean, hydrogen for hydrogen is a fuel for cars and trucks and so on. It makes no sense at all. It costs three times as much energy and four or five times as much relative to using batteries for the same job. So, it’s just not a good idea.
CB: That was Paul Martin from Spitfire Research, who joined us in this episode of Tech Transfer Talk. Paul Martin will be joining us again soon to continue the journey, discussing hydrogen and starting to dig a little bit more into the concept of distributed manufacturing. We look forward to joining us then.