Hydrogen BECCS: The potential for hydrogen production with net negative CO2 emissions - Jonathan Morris

Comment by Jonathan Morris, Energy Systems Engineer (Bioenergy) at Energy Systems Catapult. 

Hydrogen production from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, commonly called ‘Hydrogen BECCS’ or H2BECCS, is a technology than can produce hydrogen whilst resulting in a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Independent modelling by Energy Systems Catapult, the Climate Change Committee, and others has consistently shown Hydrogen BECCS to play a key role in the UK’s pathway to Net Zero.

However, there is a far lower awareness of Hydrogen BECCS in comparison to other hydrogen production technologies such as electrolysis and steam methane reforming.  Moreover, a variety of technical challenges still exist with Hydrogen BECCS, and funding mechanisms to support large scale deployment are not evident. This article sets the scene as to the current state of Hydrogen BECCS, and the potential it offers for the Net Zero transition.

What is Hydrogen BECCS?

At the core of the process, Hydrogen BECCS relies upon the gasification of a solid biomass fuel.

Biomass can be various forms, such as wood, energy crops, or agricultural wastes. These materials capture CO2 via photosynthesis during their growth. Capture of CO2 at the end the Hydrogen BECCS process leads to net negative emissions.

In gasification, biomass is exposed to a temperature of over 700°C in a reactor with limited oxygen. This prevents combustion, and instead causes the fuel to break down into a synthesis gas, commonly known as ‘syngas’. Syngas is a blend of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other minor components. Gas cleaning processes are performed on the syngas to remove tars and other contaminants. The syngas then enters a water gas shift reactor, where steam is introduced. Water from the steam reacts with carbon monoxide in the syngas to form CO2 and additional hydrogen. Gas separation is then performed, resulting in purified streams of hydrogen and CO2.

Hydrogen BECCS technologies are currently around . Future commercial facilities could scale to capacities upwards of 300MW of hydrogen output, with >99.97% hydrogen purity depending upon the gas separation and purification technologies.

The UK government is funding development of Hydrogen BECCS technologies through the £26m Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Programme, part of the £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio (NZIP).

Where does Hydrogen BECCS fit in the Net Zero transition?

Hydrogen BECCS is projected to act as a significant driver of net negative emissions in the future energy system, whilst also producing hydrogen which can be used to decarbonise other sectors. Example technoeconomic studies have shown the carbon intensity of hydrogen from Hydrogen BECCS to range from -15.8kgCO2 eq./kgH2 to -21.8 kgCO2 eq./kgH2. This is dependent on the feedstock used, including transportation and processing, and the carbon capture efficiency.

Projections from our Energy Systems Modelling Environment (ESME) model show a need for between 34-65TWh of hydrogen from Hydrogen BECCS by 2050, out of a total hydrogen need of around 200-250TWh by 2050. This total future hydrogen need is comparable to the current UK electricity consumption of around 330TWh. In these ESME scenarios, Hydrogen BECCS provides 23-39MtCO2/yr removals. The Climate Change Committee projected Hydrogen BECCS providing as much as 36MtCO2/yr of removals in 2050 alongside producing approximately 60TWh of hydrogen in their Tailwinds scenario.

These projections present a significant future market opportunity for Hydrogen BECCS. If this opportunity is not realised, other technologies will have to be utilised for negative emissions and hydrogen production. This would result in higher system cost, less system flexibility, or both.

What is the market potential for Hydrogen BECCS?

The UK government has previously estimated that the hydrogen economy could be worth up to £13 billion per year to the UK in 2050, supporting over 100,000 jobs. Hydrogen BECCS could account for a substantial proportion of this future market. Internationally, the future addressable market size is far larger than this, given the necessity for carbon dioxide removal technologies to limit warming to 1.5°C as identified by the IPCC, and the significant interest in hydrogen production technologies. Major markets may include Canada, the USA, India, and Brazil given their respective abundant biomass resource and energy demands.

At present, there is a lack of clear policy support for the deployment of Hydrogen BECCS technologies, or sight of when this may begin to emerge. As previously noted, the UK government is currently funding development programmes, and the UK has several notable private companies developing the technology. Therefore, there could be a significant future export opportunity if Hydrogen BECCS is first deployed and proven in the UK.

Future activity

Hydrogen BECCS is projected to play a key role in the UK’s pathway to Net Zero and future hydrogen economy. Moreover, it could offer a substantial opportunity for the export of UK expertise globally if it is successfully delivered in the UK.

Energy Systems Catapult are utilising our independent, peer reviewed modelling tools such as the Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME) and the Bioenergy Value Chain Model (BVCM) to delve deeper into the role of Hydrogen BECCS in the future energy system. This includes modelling and analysis of how different levels of deployment of Hydrogen BECCS may impact the future energy system. including costs. This activity is ongoing as part of the Hydrogen Innovation Initiative (HII), funded by Innovate UK, which aims to accelerate hydrogen innovation and deployment in the UK. Updates on the outcomes of this work will be published in the near future.

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