With the introduction of large-scale initiatives, money, and official support globally, blue hydrogen production is gaining traction.
By 2033, the blue hydrogen market will be worth US$34 billion, according to IDTechEx’s analysis. But what technology will be primarily responsible for this capacity and market expansion?
When hydrogen is created from natural gas with CO2 emissions absorbed and stored, it is referred to as blue hydrogen. In this article, autothermal reforming (ATR), a crucial process for creating blue hydrogen, is examined. It contrasts it with the currently used steam-methane reforming (SMR) and shows the important figures, projects, and potential economic effects this technology could have on the market for low-carbon hydrogen. For a more thorough analysis of alternative technologies like methane pyrolysis, partial oxidation, and coal/biomass gasification, see IDTechEx’s recently released market research, “Blue Hydrogen Production & Markets 2023-2033: Technologies, Forecasts, Players”.
Autothermal Reforming: Advantages and Disadvantages
By combining partial oxidation and steam reforming, ATR turns hydrocarbons like natural gas into syngas. Steam and natural gas are combined before being introduced to the reformer, where they combine with oxygen at the hob. In the combustion chamber of the reformer, oxygen and methane partially oxidise one another. The endothermic steam reforming activities in the catalytic bed are heated by this reaction. Autothermal processes thereby self-heat and sustain themselves without the need for outside warmth.
The process operates under harsher conditions than typical SMR, at temperatures and pressures of 900 to 1050 °C and 30 to 100 bar, respectively. These circumstances lessen coking, which lessens catalytic bed obstruction. As a result, more high-temperature steam is produced, which can be utilised to heat later stages of the reaction or to reused in the reaction to reduce the steam-to-carbon ratio. The heating principle of ATR, as opposed to SMR, is what gives it its key advantages. Heat is given directly inside the autothermal reformer, as opposed to the furnace heating required for SMR. Because all CO2 emissions are contained in the product syngas stream, the ATR process does not produce any flue gases. As SMR uses post-combustion flue gas stream collection, carbon capture is simpler and uses smaller pre-combustion capture equipment.
There are certain drawbacks to the procedure, though. First off, unlike the single reformer in SMR, large-scale blue hydrogen synthesis necessitates several reactor trains. For the provision of pure oxygen, the facility additionally requires cryogenic air separation units (ASUs). Any cost savings from reduced heating requirements are offset by these CAPEX and OPEX-intensive units. They do use electricity, though, thus renewable energy can cut Scope 2 emissions. ASUs complicate operation and safety due to cryogenic temperatures and pure oxygen, so the facility needs strict regulations and enhanced safety practises including more frequent cold box inspections.
In light of these factors, ATR might not be more affordable than SMR in terms of the levelized cost of hydrogen (LCOH, total CAPEX and OPEX per unit of H2 produced). Yet, the technique is interesting for new greenfield blue hydrogen projects since it can be integrated with carbon capture.
Commercial ATR activity and interest
The main autothermal reformer and process technology suppliers are Topsoe, Johnson Matthey (JM), and Air Liquide. These companies have patented technologies that are desirable for future blue hydrogen plants. Due to their distinctive designs, these technologies are appealing to project creators. In order to increase energy efficiency, JM’s LCH process layout pre-reforms natural gas with a gas-heated reformer while Topsoe’s SynCOR reformer uses a multi-layered bed of Topsoe’s proprietary Ni-based catalysts. Businesses in the petrochemical, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and industrial gases sectors are very interested in these technologies. Because of this, these businesses frequently collaborate to construct sizable blue hydrogen facilities to supply refineries, ammonia factories, and industrial zones.
For example, Air Products intends to spend US$4.5 billion on its Louisiana Clean Energy Complex, which will generate 620 kilotonnes of blue hydrogen annually (ktpa). The company also intends to use CA$0.5 billion in government funding to construct its CA$1.6 billion Canada Net-Zero Hydrogen Energy Complex in Alberta. While it doesn’t have a proprietary ATR technology, Air Products employs Topsoe’s SynCOR technology for both projects. Another notable project developer is Air Liquide, which has built 12 sizable ATR facilities that generate grey hydrogen or syngas globally. The business intends to use its experience to create new projects like the Air Liquide-exclusive Kashiwazaki Clean Hydrogen & Ammonia Project, which will be the first blue hydrogen and ammonia project in Japan.
ATR will be used in numerous blue hydrogen projects across Europe, particularly in the UK. For instance, Equinor, a company focusing on CCS and low-carbon hydrogen, intends to build or take part in a number of blue hydrogen projects throughout Europe, including its own H2H Saltend site in the UK. The facility will generate 150 ktpa of blue hydrogen using JM’s LCH and BASF’s carbon capture technology. JM’s LCH will also be used in another project, HyNet North West, a collaboration between Eni, Essar, and others to supply low-carbon hydrogen to Merseyside’s industrial zone. The research from IDTechEx has more information on business ventures in the blue hydrogen market.
Prospects for Blue Hydrogen and ATR
Future blue hydrogen projects may find ATR to be a good option due to its benefits, which include simpler carbon capture integration. Large-scale blue hydrogen reactors will use ATR, which will also be used by Equinor, Air Products, Air Liquide, and other chemical and energy firms. To build such facilities, these companies can make use of their gas separation and CCS technology, as well as their knowledge of chemical process design and operation. Topsoe, JM, and suppliers of catalysts, process machinery, components, and engineering services will also profit from new blue hydrogen facilities.
It is likely that many more substantial blue hydrogen facilities powered by ATR will be revealed in the upcoming years. ATR may be used, like in the case of BP’s H2Teesside and ExxonMobil’s Baytown blue hydrogen facilities. According to IDTechEx, ATR will supply the majority of the world’s future blue hydrogen capacity. SMR and partial oxidation (POX) are two more thermochemical reactions, nonetheless, that shouldn’t be disregarded. These technologies will increase blue hydrogen capacity if SMR units are retrofitted with CCS, whilst coal gasification may be used in coal-rich countries like China and Australia to increase capacity. Another potential approach is methane pyrolysis, which results in blue hydrogen, but its industrial application will be limited, at least in the short term.
The latest market study from IDTechEx, “Blue Hydrogen Production & Markets 2023-2033: Technologies, Forecasts, Players,” examines and contrasts all of these procedures while offering information on the initiatives of major players. Also included are regional, technological, and end-use-specific 10-year market estimates for the blue hydrogen sector.