Brazil is making an effort to enter the global production map H2V (H2 for hydrogen and V for green), clean fuel With the ability to meet the requirements of the electrical and automotive sector with low environmental impact. By the end of this year, EDP Brasil, one of the leading companies in the country’s energy sector, plans to start activities at a pilot H2V production unit in São Gonçalo do Amarante, Ceará. Hydrogen will be obtained through water electrolysis, a chemical process that uses electric current to break down water into its components, hydrogen (H, forming H2) and oxygen (O, forming O2) contained in a water molecule (H2O). When the electrolysis process uses renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, or biomass, hydrogen is classified as green. The EDP plant will use photovoltaic energy and will have the capacity to produce 22.5 kilograms (kg) of hydrogen per hour. The planned investment is R$41.9 million.
Hydrogen is often described as the fuel of the future, and has a high calorific value, nearly three times that of diesel, gasoline and natural gas. When converted into energy – running a combustion engine or other application – it does not emit greenhouse gases (GHG). Leakage of hydrogen remaining in the atmosphere, upon contact with oxygen, produces water vapor.
Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is rarely found in isolation from Earth, but it is found in many compounds, including water, fossil fuels, and various types of biomass. Gas acquisition, in these cases, depends on the processes involved. The most common is steam reforming, which is a chemical reaction of hydrocarbons, usually natural gas, with water. The hydrogen produced in this way is called ash, because the conversion process releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or blue, when the resulting carbon dioxide is captured during its production and geologically stored.
The green hydrogen The product will be used at the Ceará pilot plant to replace part of the coal that supplies the Pecém Thermal Power Plant (UTE Pecém). “It is a research and development project. [P&D] Which will allow us to understand the energy gain that hydrogen provides, with an energy yield four times greater than that of coal,” says Cayo Moraes, COO of EDP.
The H2V pilot plant will also allow the company to monitor the technical, organizational and economic feasibility of fuel production. The expectation is that the unit will provide the subsidies needed to decide whether to set up an industrial scale plant in the state. In this case, the hydrogen can be exported to European energy companies, generate fuel for vehicles or supply to industrial companies.
Energy experts believe that the project is the first in a series of initiatives aimed at producing green hydrogen in the country. The Ceara government alone has added 14 memoranda of understanding with private groups interested in fuel production in the state. “Maybe not everyone makes it. But if half of the agreements are in force, we will have the equivalent of Itaipu in operation in Ceará between 2025 and 2030,” says Rosian Medeiros, executive secretary for industry at the Secretariat for Economic Development and Labor in Ceará State (Sedet). The installed capacity of the Itaipu Hydropower Plant, which is the largest in the country, is 14 gigawatts.
Rio Grande do Norte, Piauí, Pernambuco, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul also reported that they had signed memoranda with power generators. The race to attract green hydrogen production projects is global. Chile, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, South Korea, Australia and China are some of the countries that have announced national programs to stimulate technological development and H2V production.
In the world there are 520 hydrogen plant projects, according to the Hydrogen Council, a consortium of representatives of the largest gas producers. If confirmed, they would require investments of US$160 billion. The association estimates that fuel production will exceed 600 million tons per year (metric tons/year) and will account for 22% of global energy demand in 2050, allowing for a 20% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The forecasts of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) are more modest. For her, the sector will produce 409 metric tons / year in 2050, which, according to the entity’s calculations, will make up 12% of global energy demand.
Currently, the contribution of hydrogen to the global energy matrix is negligible. Practically all of the hydrogen produced, just over 100 million tons per year, is used for chemical purposes in industrial processes, such as oil refining, fertilizer production, steel mills, and the chemical industry.
Specialists anticipate that the dominant H2V production process in the coming years will be water electrolysis – the same as proposed for the Ceará pilot plant. This method will mainly be obtained through plants equipped with electrolyzers (equipment responsible for the electrolysis process) supplied from renewable energy sources, ensuring that the entire process is free of greenhouse gases (see chart).
Brazil prepares to start producing green hydrogen – Photo: Alexandre Afonso
One of the main barriers to increasing the world’s green hydrogen supply is the need for technological maturity gains in the hydrogen production chain, according to the report “The Geopolitics of Energy Transition: The Hydrogen Factor”, released by IRENA in January. Another is the high costs of production and logistics.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a kilo of gray hydrogen costs just over $1 – making it competitive with natural gas. The average cost of blue hydrogen is $2.3 per kilogram. The price of a kilo of green hydrogen ranges between $3 and $8, depending on the energy source used and the region of the world in which this energy is produced. IRENA predicts that the expansion of the world’s renewable energy supply and gains in production scale will make green hydrogen a competitor to blue in 2030, and over the next decade production costs will approach those offered by gray hydrogen.
According to the National Plan for Energy Expansion (PDE 2031), prepared by the Energy Research Corporation (EPE), an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Brazil is in a position to produce green hydrogen at a cheaper rate than the international average. The estimated cost of H2V – due to the lack of effective production – ranges between US$2.2 and US$5.2 per kilogram in the country.
“The popularization of hydrogen will be out of necessity. We are facing an environmental emergency and the world has already realized that it is no longer possible to rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity and to power vehicles,” says engineer Paulo Emilio Valadao de Miranda, Director of the Hydrogen Laboratory at Alberto Luis Coimbra Graduate and Research in Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Coppe/UFRJ) and President of the Brazilian Hydrogen Association (ABH2).
One opportunity to reduce hydrogen production costs is to increase the efficiency of the electrolyzer. Researchers at the Center for the Development of Functional Materials at the Federal University of São Carlos (CDMF-UFSCar), one of the FAPESP-funded Centers for Research, Innovation and Diffusion (Cepid), study materials capable of reducing energy consumption in the chemical hydrolysis process of the water molecule. As chemist Lúcia Helena Mascaro Sales, director of project research, explained, one of the best catalysts – substances that increase the speed of chemical reactions in electrolysis – are the noble metals, especially platinum. Nickel, cobalt or molybdenum combined with iron alloys or sulfides with great performance can also be used.
The UFSCar team is looking into the use of materials such as titanium oxide modified with molybdenum sulfide or various alloys consisting of nickel, copper, molybdenum and iron. “At a laboratory scale, we have demonstrated that it is possible to significantly reduce energy consumption in water electrolysis,” Mascaro says. Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, co-sponsor with FAPESP of another research project in which Mascaro is involved, on energy-dense carriers, is interested in testing catalysts developed at pilot plants in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and Houston, in the United States
At the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), Professor Adriana Nunes Correa, of the Department of Analytical Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, is studying metallic materials capable of increasing the efficiency of the electrolyzer and reducing its costs. The research proposal, which is still in its initial stage, is to use microbial electrolysis cells, using microorganisms as biocatalysts, to produce hydrogen from domestic wastewater or industrial effluents. The idea is to convert the chemical energy of sewage into an electric current, which makes it possible to obtain gas. “This process will allow hydrogen production and organic waste processing at the same time,” Correa says.
Research focusing on green hydrogen is also conducted at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Chemist Helton José Alves, coordinator of the Laboratory for Renewable Materials and Energies, is dedicated to the study of new technological methods for fuel production. One of them uses acid bacteria to destroy the remaining biomass from industrial effluents.
The investigation resulted in the publication of two articles in the magazine International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. The business deals with hydrogen production from wastewater in breweries. “The big advantage is to reduce production costs and save water resources,” says Alves. The production process for hydrogen production will be referred to as an energy solution for the very industry in which the effluent is generated.
Another considered method of hydrogen production is to use the method known as dry reforming of biogas. Alves explains that the system expects to use the methane and carbon dioxide present in the biogas to generate synthesis gas, which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The process takes place in reactors with nickel-based metal catalysts, at a temperature of 700-800 ° C. Next, the synthesis gas is purified to obtain hydrogen. Alves predicts: “In cooperation with the partners, we intend to install a pilot unit capable of producing 1 kg of hydrogen per hour in 2022.” Unlike the traditional natural gas steam reforming system, the drying system does not need water.
The study of hydrogen production methods that do not rely on pure water for their operations is of great interest and is closely monitored by industry professionals. According to IRENA, to produce 409 million tons of green hydrogen annually and provide 12% of global energy demand in 2050, it will be necessary to consume between 7 billion and 9 billion cubic meters of water annually. The total is less than 0.25% of the current fresh water consumption. It may sound small, but it’s an impressive size in a world where such a resource is scarce.
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