‘We believe in hydrogen too.’ Marcel van de Kar, Vopak’s Commercial Director and Director New Energies gets straight down to business. ‘We’ve been active for over 400 years under the motto ‘storing vital products with care’. Meaning that when product streams change, we need to be prepared. And from today’s perspective, hydrogen is set to become one of the ‘vital products’ of the future. So we’ve consequently been giving it our full attention.’
Hydrogen is set to become one of the ‘vital products’ of the future
Another thing Van de Kar doesn’t doubt for a moment is that in this ‘hydrogen future’, Rotterdam will continue to play an important role as a major international energy hub. ‘Rotterdam is a major market for hydrogen as it is. And hydrogen consumption by the port’s transport sector and industrial cluster is only expected to increase. Moreover, Rotterdam is an important transit port for energy destined for the German industry.’
As a company, we are investing and thinking along as far as how we can contribute by supporting the energy transition
As far as hydrogen’s impact on the climate is concerned, the key issue is its method of production. Up till now, the substance has mainly been made by converting natural gas at high temperatures: a process that generates a lot of carbon emissions. This carbon can be captured at the source and stored. In empty gas fields below the North Sea, for example, as envisioned in Rotterdam’s Porthos project. This procedure yields what is commonly known as ‘blue hydrogen’: an effective temporary solution. The required infrastructure for hydrogen is being developed further with various Rotterdam parties within the ‘H-Vision’ project. But ultimately, the production of hydrogen itself will also change – indeed, it will have to change. Using electrolysis, water (H2O) can be split into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O). And when this process is powered by green energy like wind or solar, hydrogen becomes truly carbon-neutral, and suited for a wide array of sustainable applications, ranging from fuel for public transport to chemical production.
‘Ultimately, that’s what we’re heading towards,’ says Van de Kar. ‘However, sustainable electrolysis does call for vast quantities of green electricity. Unfortunately, we can’t get there with the Netherlands’ solar panels and wind farms alone – particularly not if we intend to electrify Rotterdam’s port and industrial complex and ensure that it is supplied with sufficient green hydrogen.’
One solution would be to ship hydrogen produced in other countries to Rotterdam. It’s far from easy to transport hydrogen in its gaseous form, but there’s a solution for that too. Hydrogen is made up of very small molecules, which can be ‘packed’ in a liquid made up of larger molecules like lamp oil. Mixtures of this kind are called Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers (LOHC). A highly promising technology according to Van de Kar, who last year convinced Vopak to take an interest in the German firm Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies, which develops hydrogen carrier technology. ‘It can also be stored in ammonia, for example. One advantage of that particular mixture is that it can be used directly as a semi-manufacture in various chemical processes.’
This LOHC technology is still in its infancy, incidentally. ‘Right now, Hydrogenious can only pack 100 kilograms of hydrogen per day in this liquid. We hope this total can soon be raised to 1,500 kilograms per day, and then quickly stepped up to 20 tonnes per day and beyond.’ This would in turn open up an entirely new range of opportunities, since hydrogen itself is also very suited as a carrier for electricity. ‘Similarly packed in liquid, it could also be used to export renewable electricity produced by solar farms in the Sahara Desert. But as we mentioned, this is all still early days. Nevertheless: as a company, we are investing and thinking along as far as how we can contribute by supporting the energy transition. Both in the interest of a sustainable future and to promote a new ‘vital product’, which can be stored at our facilities.’