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Climate and Nature

How digital twins can help the hydrogen economy deliver net zero

Digital twins can help ramp up hydrogen production.

Digital twins can help ramp up hydrogen production. Image: iStock

Thomas Leurent
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Akselos
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Climate and Nature

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  • Hydrogen has a critical role to play in the transition to net zero. It must scale urgently to deliver on that promise.
  • Digital twins - virtual representations of real-world infrastructure - can help lower the cost of renewable energy to enable the production of more green hydrogen.
  • Repurposing the multi-trillion-dollar energy asset base with the help of digital twins can also ramp up blue hydrogen production to meet increasing demand.

Hydrogen has tremendous potential to help end our reliance on fossil fuels and ensure a successful transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. It produces only water as a bi-product when used as a fuel source and can help decarbonise hard-to-abate industries that are difficult to electrify, such as long-haul transport.

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Hydrogen is one of the most common molecules in the universe. Its molecules (H2) are produced by splitting molecules containing hydrogen atoms (H). How this process is undertaken, however, determines its environmental impact:

Grey hydrogen is the most common type of hydrogen produced today. It is used primarily by the refining and chemical industries to create products such as fertiliser and petroleum. Grey hydrogen is commonly made through Steam Methane Reforming, which separates hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms in methane while emitting carbon dioxide.

Blue hydrogen is created the same way as grey hydrogen. The carbon dioxide produced in the process, however, is captured by Carbon Capture and Storage technology and stored underground. Blue hydrogen is becoming a more viable option globally as Carbon Capture and Storage prices are falling, leading to increased global adoption.

Green hydrogen uses renewable energy and electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen production processes. Repurposing the multi-trillion-dollar energy asset base with the help of digital twins can also ramp up blue hydrogen production to meet increasing demand.
Hydrogen production processes. Repurposing the multi-trillion-dollar energy asset base with the help of digital twins can also ramp up blue hydrogen production to meet increasing demand. Image: Gasunie via The World of Hydrogen

Repurposing the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel asset base

Right now, there is a high demand for blue hydrogen through numerous offtake agreements between hydrogen producers and buyers to sell hydrogen that has yet to be produced. The supply of blue hydrogen is not keeping up with demand.

Thankfully, to overcome this challenge, there is an enormous opportunity to repurpose the current multi-trillion-dollar energy asset base, which already produces vast amounts of hydrogen.

Take refineries, for example. Most refineries contain Steam Methane Reformers, which produce grey hydrogen by combining high-pressure steam with methane to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. In the future, we can add Carbon Capture and Storage technology to refineries to capture carbon dioxide, create blue hydrogen and supply the hard-to-abate sectors.

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Another example of repurposing existing oil and gas infrastructure is converting current offshore oil and gas platforms into hydrogen creation hubs using offshore wind energy and transporting hydrogen to shore through pipelines. In the Netherlands, for example, a consortium is building the first offshore green hydrogen project on an oil platform, all powered by offshore wind.

Digital twins can help in this repurposing in two ways. Firstly, digital twin technology helps extend the lifespan of oil and gas infrastructure by identifying areas of stress, down to the nearest centimetre, on a structure for engineers to fix proactively. This keeps assets - such as Steam Methane Reformers and oil and gas terminals - operational long enough to be repurposed to produce blue hydrogen, rather than being decommissioned and new assets being built, locking emissions into the future.

Digital twin technology helps extend the lifespan of oil and gas infrastructure by identifying areas of stress, down to the nearest centimetre, on a structure for engineers to fix proactively.
Digital twin technology helps extend the lifespan of oil and gas infrastructure by identifying areas of stress, down to the nearest centimetre, on a structure for engineers to fix proactively. Image: Akselos

Secondly, repurposing the ageing asset base to produce hydrogen subjects infrastructure to different operating conditions than it was designed for. Digital twin software can demonstrate that operating conditions required by hydrogen production are safe. For example, digital twin software has already shown that it can help decrease the startup time of a refinery by between six and twelve hours. This will be essential in the future since the most economically viable way to transport hydrogen is as a gas and we will need to demonstrate that existing pipelines can transport it safely.

Competitiveness by lowering the cost of renewable energy

Digital twin software can demonstrate that operating conditions required by hydrogen production are safe.
Digital twin software can demonstrate that operating conditions required by hydrogen production are safe. Image: Akselos

Green hydrogen will also have a critical role to play in the transition to net zero and it is set to grow exponentially in the coming years. India, for example, has just approved a $2.4 billion subsidy package to turn its companies into leading producers, consumers and exporters of the gas.

Vast amounts of renewable energy will be required to produce enough green hydrogen to achieve net zero. The International Energy Agency has calculated that we will need 50GW of renewable capacity dedicated to green hydrogen production by 2027, which is a 100-fold increase. Moreover, the cost of this renewable energy must be lowered enough to make it competitive.

Take floating offshore wind as an example, where the technology has enormous growth potential. Floating offshore wind can produce a huge amount of electricity, not limited by water depth or distance from the shore. The cost of electricity produced by the technology, however, is currently too high to be economically viable as a renewable energy source for green hydrogen.

Here, digital twins can play a critical role in four main ways:

1. Lower the initial cost of floating offshore wind projects by helping engineers design cheaper, leaner designs.

2. Render the projects immediately bankable by reducing uncertainty.

3. Reduce maintenance costs by allowing engineers to undertake proactive, predictive maintenance.

4. Create a digital feedback loop to further reduce the costs of the next generation of projects.

Powerful digital twins, for example, are used to create superior offshore wind foundation designs with up to 30% less steel weight, while maintaining the same performance, thereby making these optimised turbines significantly cheaper to build.

Securing a net-zero future through digital twins

To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we must activate all available levers. Hydrogen is one such lever and next-generation digital twins are one of the fulcrums. As Archimedes famously stated: “give me a place to stand, a lever long enough and a fulcrum and I can move the earth.”

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