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How can we deliver one of the fuels of the future?
The world needs more energy than ever before. This growing demand means we need a more-sustainable supply and generation system, one that can meet these demands, whilst also addressing CO2 emissions and the overall impact of energy generation on the environment.
One possible solution is hydrogen, which has the potential to deliver lower-carbon, efficient, and affordable energy at scale. However, it is expensive to transport. So how could we make it commercially viable to deliver this lower-carbon energy around the world?
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it could play an essential role in tomorrow’s energy mix — from fueling cars, trains, trucks and ships, to generating electricity and powering industry.
Currently, the majority of the world’s industrial hydrogen is derived from natural gas (methane) and is used for fertilizers, as well as in the iron, steel, and space industries. However, the traditional method of extracting hydrogen from natural gas also creates around 10 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of hydrogen produced. Therefore, we needed to find a way to produce it that is less carbon intensive.
Blue hydrogen: a key element of the circular carbon economy
Blue hydrogen is produced by reforming natural gas through the steam methane reforming (SMR) process, and then capturing the CO2 emissions created by this process. The captured carbon can then be utilized or stored forming a part of our vision for a circular carbon economy — where carbon itself is considered a resource to be captured, reused, and recycled.
Currently, we can successfully convert around 80-85% of the energy of the hydrocarbon into hydrogen fuel, and we then use a range of innovative technologies to utilize the captured CO2 including injecting it into our oil reservoirs for Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Reducing the cost of transportation
Producing blue hydrogen was only half of the solution. The next problem we had to overcome was how to affordably store and deliver this potentially-revolutionary fuel to where it was needed.
Hydrogen is a very small and light molecule, meaning the element’s ‘natural’ form is a gas. As a gas, it can be liquified, but that requires keeping it at a temperature of -254°C, which makes it very difficult and expensive to transport — particularly over long distances. The solution lay in converting the hydrogen into a chemical compound which is already widely traded around the world: ammonia.
Compared to hydrogen, liquified ammonia is far more convenient, practical and cost-effective to transport, in terms of both the required temperature and pressure conditions.
Once the blue ammonia reaches its destination, it can be used directly as a fuel for gas turbines for lower-carbon power generation or be converted back into blue hydrogen.
The world's first blue ammonia shipment
In 2020, we successfully completed one of our most ambitious pilot projects to date — a supply network demonstration with our chemicals-production subsidiary SABIC, and the Institute of Energy Economics Japan (IEEJ).
The fruits of this unique collaboration came in August 2020, when we successfully shipped 40 tons of high-grade blue ammonia to three facilities in Japan, where 20% ammonia was successfully co-fired with coal, and at the same ratio with natural gas, in existing power stations.
Following this successful shipment, in August 2022 we once again combined forces with SABIC to take the next big step required to further the development of blue ammonia supply chains. We employed the services of TÜV Rheinland, a leading independent testing, inspection and certification agency based in Germany, in order to obtain the world’s first independent certifications recognizing lower-carbon, ‘blue’ hydrogen and ammonia production, and announced our intention to produce up to 11 million tons per annum of blue ammonia by 2030.
Since achieving this important milestone, in early 2023 we shipped more of this now independently-certified lower-carbon ammonia to Japan, this time to Sodegaura Refinery for use in co-fired power generation, with technical support provided by Japan Oil Engineering Co (“JOE”).
These pilot projects are just a couple of the many initiatives that will help Japan realize its ultimate ambition of becoming a lower-carbon society and, according to the IEEJ, about 10% of power generation in Japan could one day be fueled by blue ammonia.
Hydrogen as a transportation fuel
Hydrogen, ammonia, and fuel cell technologies also have impressive potential as lower-carbon transport solutions for the future.
In 2019, Aramco established the first hydrogen fueling station in Saudi Arabia for the use of our test fleet, whilst countries such as Japan, China and South Korea are also investing in hydrogen-charging stations and infrastructures. This increasing demand for hydrogen helps demonstrate the importance of our ability to transport it around the globe at considerably lower cost.
Delivering new pathways to lower-carbon fuels
There are still challenges ahead, such as developing ways to convert a higher percentage of the hydrocarbon energy. And we need to work together with our partners around the world in order to establish the wider infrastructures and supply chains required for power generation and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
However, it’s becoming clearer that converting natural gas into blue hydrogen could be key to generating affordable, reliable, and lower-carbon energy for everyone.
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