Hydrogen, driving the “green” revolution
With its ability to replace fossil fuels and industrial processes that emit high levels of CO2, could hydrogen help us meet the energy challenges we face and transform the industrial landscape over the long term? Focus on the undoubted advantages of a promising molecule.
Hydrogen is at the heart of global decarbonization strategies. Its main advantage? Unlike fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, hydrogen only produces water on combustion. But that’s not all! Hydrogen is highly versatile and can also help to decarbonize industry, supply energy to isolated sites and store electricity, particularly from renewable sources. Could this molecule be Saint-Gobain’s perfect partner in reaching its goal of carbon neutrality?
The International Energy Agency currently considers it necessary to double global hydrogen production by 2030 in order to be “on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050”. This is why the Group is acting now to be among the pioneers in the hydrogen ecosystem. Through global innovations and offers throughout the value chain, Saint-Gobain is preparing for the future, and working today to identify and develop solutions for tomorrow.
A tool to decarbonize industry
“At Saint-Gobain, hydrogen is above all a new solution to help us decarbonize industrial processes that are unsuited to conventional solutions, such as electrification,” explains Noémie Chocat, Saint-Gobain’s Vice-President Corporate Strategy1. “In glassmaking, for example, it is very difficult to completely electrify the furnaces, which run on natural gas and reach temperatures of more than 1,500°C. We are actively exploring the possibility of using hydrogen as a complementary green fuel in a hybrid furnace” she adds.
Very actively, as the first flat glass made with 30% hydrogen was produced in March 2023 at the Saint-Gobain Glass Herzogenrath site in Germany. While this was a test production run, it was nevertheless a world first, enabling the Group to demonstrate the technical feasibility of the new generation of melting furnaces already under development. By 2030, these new furnaces, fueled mainly by hydrogen, alongside other decarbonized energy sources, will reduce the site’s direct CO2 emissions by up to 70%
Hydrogen storage in Herzogenrath, Germany
Similarly, hydrogen can at least partially replace fossil fuels in high-temperature processes for cement, iron and steel production. This miracle molecule can even replace coal in certain industrial processes, such as steelmaking. A new process uses hydrogen instead of coke in the blast furnace to produce what specialists call “pre-reduced iron ore”, a material that emits up to 25% less CO2 when transformed into steel.
An already operational ally
In addition to these excellent results in industry, hydrogen is also contributing to decarbonization in other sectors, such as mobility. Saint-Gobain already uses it to fuel some of its trucks in China and France. This zero-emissions fuel is also being studied for use in ferry boats and for rail and air transport.
But it is above all its energy storage capacity that makes it an ally of choice: combined with an XXL fuel cell, it can be used to provide a back-up power supply for isolated industrial sites. Even better, it could make up for the drawbacks of renewable energies! Solar and wind power generation is subject to the vagaries of the weather: when there is lots of wind but little demand, the electricity generated is lost. Hydrogen can store large quantities of surplus electricity over the long term, making it an ideal solution for smoothing the use of these green energies.
Convinced that this is a major asset in the industrial and energy transition, Saint-Gobain is taking action to prepare the decarbonization solutions of the future. The Group has brought together its experts in a new cross-company platform: HPS Hydrogen and Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage. “Using our strong connections with the entire hydrogen ecosystem (potential customers, innovators, technology developers, investors, institutions, etc.), we are working to identify the problems to be solved and the needs, whether expressed or not,” explains Raphaël Lanté, global platform manager. “We’ll then build on concrete opportunities to develop solutions, most often in partnership,” he adds.
Producing green hydrogen, a race against the clock
So, is there no downside to hydrogen? To fully contribute to reducing CO2 emissions from industry and transport, and encourage the development of renewable energies, hydrogen must first become sustainable in its own right. Currently, nearly 99% of world production is from gas and coal, and it emits CO2!
Fortunately, it can also be produced from water and electricity, preferably renewable. But this requires electrolyzers, machines that use electric current to chemically decompose water (H2O) in order to recover the precious gas (H2). And in Europe alone, to produce 10 million metric tons of renewable hydrogen by 2030, will mean building enough electrolyzers to generate 120 GW, representing an investment of €27bn! “To achieve this requires building 17.5 GW of electrolyzer capacity per year by 2027. It’s a real race against time, and all the component supply chains are being put in place,” says Raphaël Lanté, Global HPS H2/CCUS Platform Manager at Saint-Gobain. Seals, proton exchange membranes, polymers and ceramics... the Group is clearly taking a position in this high-potential market with its ceramic and composite solutions for the famous electrolyzers.
So what’s the verdict on this highly promising molecule? It can reduce emissions from industry and pollution from transport, and it can store sustainable energies. But producing “gray” hydrogen (from gas) is still 3 to 6 times cheaper than producing “green” hydrogen (from water electrolysis). Unless the innovations Saint-Gobain hopes to make through its cross-company platform manage to reverse the trend and give the green light for truly sustainable energy!
1 Génération Hydrogène. September 2022. Air Liquide