The energy industry is a critical contributor to virtually every business—and person—on the planet. Generated via chemical, electrical, radiant, mechanical, thermal, and nuclear energy sources, there’s no doubt that the energy industry’s impact is broad reaching. From transportation and health care to pharmaceuticals and hospitality, energy is the powerhouse behind the world’s most essential goods and services.
However, the negative consequences of producing these essential energies must be acknowledged. As the world cracks down on industrial sustainability, the steep environmental cost of energy production is of particular concern. Energy emissions are making headlines as activists and world leaders call for a system overhaul as we move towards a sustainable and circular economy.
To quantify its impact, it’s helpful to understand that energy combustion was responsible for nearly 89% of energy sector greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. This was the highest ever annual level for global CO2 emissions from energy combustion and industrial processes. As exhibited by the International Energy Agency chart below, coal, oil, and natural gas are the largest contributors.
To reduce emissions and reach net-zero, the world has become a hotbed of innovation for alternative energy sources. While many different ideas and methods are currently being explored, one alternative energy source seems to have limitless potential: hydrogen fuel.
The Case For Hydrogen Energy
Hydrogen has been widely embraced as an effective path toward net zero. While there are many alternative fuel options, hydrogen fuel is the most viable option for the energy industry. By using hydrogen both as an energy source and as feedstock in chemical production, it has the potential to vastly reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The main benefit of using hydrogen instead of hydro-carbons is that the only byproduct that it produces is water. Alternatively, when using oil or gas as the fuel, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are produced—a major contributor to the industry’s massive carbon footprint.
To take things one step further, green hydrogen is an even more sustainable option. Produced through renewable energy sources like solar and wind, green hydrogen is the solution the chemical industry has been waiting for.
Many innovative organizations have already begun to use hydrogen as fuel. In the United States, most of the hydrogen consumed is used for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. Accordingly, its end users are mostly chemical plants, refineries, and iron and steel producers.
Hydrogen use is also taking off in Europe, where annual demand is expected to exceed 100 million tons by 2050. This would represent a massive milestone where hydrogen would become the main energy carrier for the EU’s energy system.
Clearly, there is a strong market opportunity for hydrogen production. So it comes as no surprise that the emerging hydrogen economy is taking the world by storm. According to the Hydrogen Council, over 350 new hydrogen projects have recently been announced. Together, these projects are worth a massive $500 billion…but that’s only the beginning. Predictions estimate that this demand could grow by 6 times through 2050.
For all these reasons, hydrogen is expected to be a key player in decarbonizing energy. However, the use of hydrogen in the chemical industry may be a double-edged sword.
The Downside of Hydrogen as an Energy Source
There’s no doubt that using hydrogen as an alternative energy source has the potential to vastly reduce emissions. However, there are also some serious risks associated with hydrogen that must be addressed.
The first issue is that hydrogen may not be as sustainable as many have been led to believe. Because while it’s true that hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide when being burned or used as fuel, the production of hydrogen does emit carbon dioxide. Additionally, when hydrogen is released into the atmosphere, its presence contributes to increased greenhouse gases.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the leak problem. Since hydrogen is molecularly very small, it is extremely difficult to contain. Leakage is very common—especially as hydrogen is moved between production and its end location. In fact, a hydrogen leak recently prevented the launch of a NASA rocket when engineers failed to resolve the problem.
The question remains: why is a hydrogen leak so bad? The answer lies in hydrogen’s elemental qualities. Because it is such a low-density substance, it can rise and quickly diffuse with air. This mixture becomes highly ignitable and can cause major hazards like fires and explosions.
Because hydrogen is colorless and odorless, it burns with a flame that is nearly impossible to see or detect. Once started, the only way to handle it is through control burning until the hydrogen leak is stopped. This typically requires complete isolation or shutdown, with the resulting damage often including corroded metals and ruptured high-pressure systems.
Further, the leak problem could be exacerbated in the future. According to a paper by Columbia University: “There is a risk of increased leakage rates in the future mostly because the leaking processes that will be key by 2050 do not exist at scale today.”
It can be observed in the above chart from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy that in both low-risk and high-risk predictions, production is the largest contributor to hydrogen leakage. Luckily, production is arguably the area where energy companies have the most control.
Preventing Hydrogen Leakage
In order to effectively future-proof their operations, industrial businesses must act now to implement the right safety infrastructure. While many organizations will focus on effective leak detection, this simply isn’t enough when it comes to hydrogen. To make hydrogen a truly sustainable alternative energy, total leak prevention must be the priority.
The good news is that energy companies need not go back to square one. Because much of the infrastructure for producing hydrogen is similar to traditional energy infrastructure, a parallel can also be drawn between the causes for leaks.
Currently, one of the most common causes for leaks in the energy industry is improperly tightened bolts. When bolts are over or under-tightened, a breach in the integrity of the piping system can occur–the perfect conditions to cause a leak. Because over 26 million bolted joints are touched every year during maintenance or construction, the implications of improper bolt tightening are massive.
Similarly, one crucial way to avoid leaks in hydrogen production is through effective bolted joint management. Innovative companies like Shell and Bechtel have already begun implementing a digital solution to this problem at scale. By using the Smart Torque System, they’re able to guide workers and connect with Bluetooth-enabled digital tools, automatically achieving target torque values and digitally recording granular work data. This helps ensure quality work–each and every time.
As the world shifts toward alternative energy, this proven digital method stands the greatest chance at helping innovative energy companies reduce hydrogen leakage.