Considered the “fuel of the future”, green hydrogen is still in its first steps in Brazil, but different initiatives can put the country in the world route of production of the substance, seen as one of the main alternatives for reducing the use of non-renewable sources with carbon, the main villain of the greenhouse effect and global warming.
The theme will be under debate at Fenasucro, considered to be the biggest bioenergy fair on the planet, to be held at the Zanini Events Center, in Sertãozinho (SP), from August 16 to 19.
“The term ‘green’ means that hydrogen is produced by renewable, zero-emission, or low-carbon sources,” explains Renato Vitalino Gonçalves, professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) Physics Institute, in São Carlos, and project coordinator at the Research Center for Greenhouse Gas Innovation (RGCI).
Green hydrogen: what it is and how it is produced
Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element on the planet and only exists in combination with others, such as water, along with oxygen, and combines with carbon to form hydrocarbons such as gas, coal, and oil. Therefore, in order to be used as a fuel, it needs to be separated from other molecules.
Green hydrogen is obtained from the breakdown of molecules that contain H2 in the composition, but differs from the so-called gray hydrogen, already widely used in the petrochemical industry and in the production of ammonia-based fertilizers, which uses fossil sources, mainly natural gas.
In the sustainable modality, the product has renewable raw materials such as ethanol, biogas and vinasse – one of the residues from sugarcane mills.
The greatest benefit, however, would be the possibility of extraction from water, according to Juliano Bonacin, professor at the Chemistry Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). In this sense, the sugar-energy sector could use the residual water from its activities, such as the water used to wash the sugarcane.
“We have realized that the environmental issue is not a fad. It is here to stay. Everyone needs to rethink their processes, to look for more sustainable alternatives, which will generate certifications and impacts on the companies’ revenues in the future,” he says.
The expansion of green hydrogen would allow new directions in industry and in everyday life, such as the production of a sustainable steel, the so-called green steel, the replacement of part of the cooking gas and the supply of cars, trucks and other vehicles.
Bonacin says that, although this is still a futuristic scenario, there is already research underway to make the product viable even in domestic environments, with the use of small electrolyzers obtained through 3D printing.
In this case, the water would be converted during the day, from solar plates, into hydrogen – which, through fuel cells, could be used as an energy source at night.
The first initiatives in Brazil
It is estimated that 2% to 5% of the hydrogen produced in the world is green, but in Brazil this technology is very new. What exist, for now, are pilot plants, generally conducted experimentally in public-private partnerships.
Most are in the Northeast because of the existence of wind and solar energy farms, where electrolyzers are connected.
In September 2021, the Government of Ceará announced an investment of R$42 million by the company EDP do Brasil in a green hydrogen plant that should start operating in December of this year.
Another undertaking is by Unigel, which manufactures chemicals used in various industrial segments and fertilizers. In Camaçari (BA), the company is building a green hydrogen plant and another for conversion into a byproduct, green ammonia – which is widely used by various types of industries, including Unigel’s own.
The expectation is to finish the construction work by the end of 2023 and start large-scale operations in early 2024.
The first phase foresees an investment of US$ 120 million (R$ 620 million), for a production of ten thousand tons of hydrogen, which will be converted into 60 thousand tons of ammonia. But the company is already looking for partners in order to quadruple this volume by 2025.
According to executive director Luiz Felipe Fustaino, the main bet is on the domestic market. “If the domestic market, for some reason, takes a while to grow, which we don’t believe will happen, we will bet on the export channels.
For Fustaino, climate change is an emergency and needs attention. Therefore, zero-carbon raw materials are a necessity.
“It’s a transition that the world is making. And we are betting on Brazil, which can become a global hub for hydrogen and green ammonia. The country has the potential to be a leader.”
Green hydrogen incorporated into the sugar-energy sector
With extensive sugarcane plantations and sugar-energy plants, regions like Ribeirão Preto (SP) also have the potential to become major hubs for green hydrogen (H2) production in the coming years, according to experts.
“Our region has the technology that the planet is seeking. There’s no way you can talk about a sugarcane plant or who plants sugarcane without talking about Sertãozinho, without talking about the Ribeirão Preto region”, says Paulo Montabone, director of Fenasucro, which annually gathers bioenergy technologies in the countryside of São Paulo.
According to him, green hydrogen, besides being a sustainable solution, presents itself as a job and income alternative for the plants.
“Each time you squeeze the sugarcane, it brings a new solution. In the past, it was the sugar cane mill. Then came sugar, ethanol, cogeneration of electricity, and other byproducts, such as second-generation ethanol, biogas, ethanol diesel, and green hydrogen.”
For him, the Ribeirão Preto region can be a protagonist in the distribution of green hydrogen to other parts of the country and also abroad, especially countries in Europe.
“In the Ribeirão Preto region there are industrial poles, among them sugar and alcohol production plants. The implementation of large-scale technologies to use ethanol to produce green H2 would make the region a major production center.”
When should production gain consistency in the country?
Specialists believe that in about ten years Brazil will have an outstanding position in this market. For Juliano Bonacin, from Unicamp, however, in a period between two and four years, the country will already be able to generate a significant production of green hydrogen.
In the region of Campinas (SP), for example, companies that already work with hydrogen are starting to change procedures for the sustainable version of the fuel. One of the challenges is cost reduction, since obtaining it is four times more expensive than conventional hydrogen.
“According to the International Energy Agency, in the next 30 years we have to reach a goal: equalize prices. And therein lies the great technological challenge and the large investments, which should exceed trillions of dollars worldwide,” he says.
An interesting path for production in Brazil, according to Tamar Roitman, executive manager of the Brazilian Biogas Association (Abiogás), is from biomethane, coming from biogas, a mixture of gases resulting from the decomposition of organic materials such as garbage, animal feces, straw and vegetable remains, such as bagasse.
This would make it possible to take advantage of the potential of sugar-energy plants, which have plants in various regions of the country, to produce biogas from materials such as vinasse and sewage treatment.
“As the major form of hydrogen production today is natural gas, when you replace this gas with the renewable one, which is biomethane, you could produce this hydrogen in a totally renewable way using the same technological route, since the processes and infrastructure are the same. So that’s a very real possibility and one that is already quite established.”