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sábado, 24 de febrero 2024
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Producing green hydrogen: a contribution from UdeA to reduce carbon emissions

By Andrea Carolina Vargas Malagón, Journalist

Innovation, technology development and knowledge transfer are the contributions of UdeA on the path towards energy transition and the economy’s decarbonization. An illustrative example is the invention of the Power to Gas Pilot Plant in La Guajira, the first technological system in Colombia developed with Uniguajira. This plant enables the production of hydrogen from renewable energy sources.

According to the Hydrogen Route for Colombia, the country’s annual demand for hydrogen is estimated at 150 kilotons. To clarify, 1 kiloton is equivalent to 1000 tons. Photo courtesy: Uniguajira

After 3 years of research and a collaborative project between Universidad de Antioquia and Universidad de La Guajira (Uniguajira), within the framework of the Seneca alliance, extensive research efforts led to a tangible outcome—the Power to Gas Pilot Plant. This technological development capitalizes on the abundant renewable energy sources, namely wind and solar, present in La Guajira region. The plant is designed to efficiently produce both electricity and hydrogen, with the latter serving as a pivotal resource in the broader context of the energy transition and the drive towards decarbonizing the economy.

Learn more about the Seneca alliance here: After 5 years, the Seneca alliance outlined a roadmap for the country's energy sustainability 

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is the simplest and lightest element in the periodic table, highly reactive, and it has a zero-carbon footprint when produced from clean energy sources. This is why it is referred to as “green hydrogen.” All these properties make it an energy vector since transforming it into other molecules enables the storage and transport of significant amounts of energy.

  • Gray hydrogen: obtained from fossil fuels.
  • Blue hydrogen: obtained from fossil fuels but without the release of carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • Green hydrogen: obtained from water and renewable energies.

Andrés Amell Arrieta, coordinator of the Group of Science and Technology of Gas and Efficient and Rational Use of Energy (Gasure), affiliated with the Faculty of Engineering at UdeA and where the Power to Gas Plant project was born, clarified: “From hydrogen and thermochemical processes, we can derive fuels such as synthetic diesel, synthetic gasoline, methanol, ammonia, or synthetic natural gas. That is why we refer to hydrogen as a carrier—a vector that facilitates the generation of other molecules. This concept is known as Power to X technology, where “Power” represents electricity, and “X” denotes the resulting molecule with energy value.”

From electric power to green hydrogen, and finally to methane

Although the Power to Gas Pilot Plant was designed in the laboratories of the Gasure group at the UdeA, its physical facilities are located at Universidad de La Guajira. It is in this department that Colombia has the highest potential for renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. The region experiences winds exceeding 9 m/s, twice the world average, and it has the capacity to generate 25 GW of electric energy.

The alliance between the two universities made it possible to feed an electrolyzer from a small photovoltaic park generating 10 KW, together with a wind system producing an additional 5 KW. An electrolyzer is a technology that separates hydrogen from oxygen—constituents of water. The process, known as electrolysis, is responsible for the production of green hydrogen.

The next step involves the safe storage and transportation of hydrogen. This is achieved through a thermochemical process called methanation that involves hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The methanation process is executed in a methanation reactor developed by the Gasure group, resulting in the creation of synthetic methane. This final step completes the cycle of the Power to Gas Pilot Plant, from the initial production of hydrogen to the generation of the new molecule, synthetic methane.

Challenges to be overcome 

The creation of the Power to Gas Pilot Plant is an example that in Colombia it is possible to take advantage of the potential of its renewable resources to produce and export hydrogen. However, there are still challenges that must be overcome to achieve this potential.

One of these challenges has to do with water availability. To obtain 1 kg of hydrogen through electrolysis, 10 liters of water of the highest quality are needed. In La Guajira, where water resources are limited, this poses a constraint that needs to be addressed.

Marlon Bastidas, director of the research group Development of Studies and Environmental Technologies of Carbon, Destacar at Universidad de La Guajira and who was actively involved in the development of the Power to Gas Plant, expressed: “La Guajira currently faces water scarcity, especially drinking water. However, renewable energy could be used to desalinate seawater, but that process also requires large amounts of energy.”

Likewise, the issue of hydrogen storage represents another challenge to which a solution must be found. According to Bastidas, a short-term alternative, although not the most optimal, is to "compress the hydrogen at high pressures and store it in tanks. However, this method has safety implications such as hydrogen leakage since this element has a very violent reaction to oxygen," Bastidas explained.

Both researchers agree that when considering large-scale green hydrogen storage capacities, the best alternative is underground caverns. “The most suitable, efficient, and safe geological structures are salt caverns. These low-permeability structures prevent hydrogen, being a very small molecule, from escaping,” said Amell.

Another obstacle to overcome is the cost of production. For green hydrogen to compete effectively with fossil fuels, the expense associated with the technology required to harness renewable energy sources must be reduced. Karen Peralta, director of the Chamber of Hydrogen Andi-Naturgas, emphasized, “For Colombia to be the fourth most competitive country in hydrogen production, electrolyzers need to reduce their cost by approximately 80% and electricity needs to be priced at around US$20 megawatt/hour, which implies reducing the current value to less than half.”

Despite the unresolved challenges, green hydrogen continues to play a pivotal role in energy transition and the decarbonization of the economy, contributing to a more sustainable planet. Marlon Bastidas expressed optimism, stating, “Being a decarbonized vector and with great energy content, hydrogen is a great alternative, even for the chemical industry. I do believe that the future of energy is going to be hydrogen.”

The Roadmap for Hydrogen in Colombia estimates that by 2050, the country will need 1,850 kilotons of hydrogen, mainly for industrial, transportation, electricity, and chemical use.

In order to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases in the Colombian electricity sector, primarily CO2 emissions, it is imperative to prioritize the diversification of energy sources that do not rely on fossil fuels.

Andres Amell observes: “Today, alternative energy sources are considered options to produce electricity from renewable and carbon-free sources, thus contributing, in the first place, to decarbonization of the country's energy mix.”

Regarding the Power to Gas Plant, Peralta commented: “It is a project that has significant potential for the advancement of hydrogen in Colombia, as it addresses the fourth axis of the Roadmap for Hydrogen in Colombia (see highlighted area), which aims to promote the development of science, technology and innovation... This type of projects in a place like La Guajira allows the community to take hold of the knowledge and opens the door for a similar project to be developed in the future but on a large scale.”

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