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Hydrogen Combustion: An Approaching Reality?

How long until heat treat operations use hydrogen for combustion? Considerations like cost and pipeline infrastructure are key in answering this question. For these industry experts, the consensus is clear: It is uncertain when, but hydrogen is coming. Doug Glenn, publisher of Heat Treat Today, moderated a panel of four industry experts in 2023 during which they addressed topics about advancements and challenges surrounding hydrogen combustion. Read an excerpt of their answers below. For the full interview go to www.heattreattoday.com/hydrogen2023.

What’s New For Hydrogen?

Dr.-Ing. Joachim G. Wuenning, President/Owner
WS Wärmeprozesstechnik GmbH
Joe Wuenning: In Europe, several steel companies are getting large funds to really go in on the hydrogen road to make green steel. If you have green steel, you will also convert the downstream processes. These places are large locations where the steel plants are running. Automotive companies will ask for green steel. How long will it take until the heat treat shop will get to the point of using hydrogen for combustion is uncertain, but I’m sure it will be, in the end, coming also there.

Brian Kelly, Applications Engineering Manager
Honeywell Thermal Solutions
Brian Kelly: We have seen projects secured that have come to fruition firing on hydrogen. They’ve fired on hydrogen to prove it works and then moved back to natural gas since the H2 supply is not readily available. What we’ve seen in the U.S. is a slowdown in some of the inquiries and questions about hydrogen. There may be a slowdown in the fervor of the talk about hydrogen, but it is certainly in the background and maybe a little bit more towards how do we be more green until hydrogen gets here?

Robert Sanderson, Director of Business Development
Rockford Combustion
Bob Sanderson: We’ve seen more inquiries, specifically from a lot of laboratory users who are trying to develop new engines, processes, and combustion products and looking for all the support and the technology to safely handle transport and bring that hydrogen into the lab under various test conditions. A few users, too, want to understand: If they make the change to hydrogen, what’s going to happen with the rest of their systems? We have seen some early hydrogen requests going on which have tapered off a bit. I think it goes hand in hand with users becoming more familiar with the systems and having more of their questions answered. But I think some of it also depends a bit on the market pressures and the demands. The cost of natural gas has gone down dramatically. It’s going down faster than the cost of hydrogen is coming down. Hydrogen is going to keep coming down and keep becoming more and more affordable. Then it will reenter into the marketplace.

Mark Hannum, Manager of Innovation and Combustion Laboratory
Fives North American Combustion
Mark Hannum: Probably the biggest thing is some of the regulatory and law changes that have happened. The Inflation Reduction Act certainly puts in place a lot of supports for hydrogen production and hydrogen-based systems for decarbonization.

Burgeoning Users Of Hydrogen

Kelly: New inquiries have come from a lot of different places for us. We’ve had food and beverage, some heat treating, and plastics. Some of the inquiries have been waste to energy, sequestering CO2, and capturing the hydrogen. That’s how we’re going to produce it.

Wuenning: Our business is in the steel and heat treating industry. I’m not so much in touch with the other industries, but I think it would come from everywhere — everywhere the people are willing to pay for it. Of course, we have never beat natural gas on price, so far. Hydrogen is never going to come free out of the ground. But we all know the reasons why we want to get rid of the fossils. In heat treat, we see another tendency, and that is the use of ammonia. We try to check out whether we can use ammonia because with hydrogen you need pipeline connections, and it will take quite some time until the pipelines will carry hydrogen to the last little heat treater somewhere in the countryside.

Hannum: One of the nice things about hydrogen is if you have a clean source of water and electricity, you might be able to make hydrogen in a remote location. You might not need to pipeline it; you could make the gas and use it on site. In the steel industry in Europe, these major investments are being played out and committed to, but we’re years away from being adopted, for day-in and day-out use. There are a lot of segments that are performing really meaningful tests at the industrial scale because they’re all trying to de-risk the switch from natural gas to hydrogen. Are there any process-side impacts that they need to understand that would impact product quality or product suitability or any of those things? All that stuff is going on now, and I think it’s going to take a couple of years for everyone to sort of work through and have a good understanding of whether there’s anything they need to be worried about beyond just the fuel switch itself, if there’s any process.

Sanderson: A lot of the push I’ve seen has come out of the aerospace and the automotive industries, not so much on the products that they make but more on the manufacturing side of it.

Advancements And Challenges With Hydrogen

Sanderson: We’re doing a lot more work now with stainless materials. There is quite a bit of involvement using stainless and other materials that have higher nickel contents and other materials to help work into the grain boundaries. Working with hydrogen has some unique challenges compared to other fuels. It’s the smallest atomic molecule out there and it just wants to permeate into everything. With a lot of the higher, high-end pressures, there is a lot of chance of steel embrittlement, but if you can get away from those higher ends and try and get down to more usable, friendly working pressures, you don’t stand as much risk on the hydrogen embrittlement and dealing with leaks and permeability. So, just helping people understand that those are some of the changes that need to come into play for a safe, long-term solution in their applications.

Hannum: We have installed some hydrogen-firing capability in our lab; it was about a $400,000 investment. So, at this point, we can fire a substantial amount of input for longer durations than we could before. So, that’s really helpful when we’re looking at what the impacts are across our entire burner product range, when we look at a conversion from natural gas to hydrogen. It also lets us perform some process-based studies where we can really simulate industrial processes and have a longer duration hydrogen firing. So, we’ve been able to support some customers by simulating some of their processes here and actually firing the materials that they would normally fire at their plant to look at hydrogen impact on those materials. We’ve also gone to a couple of our customer sites and participated in studies with them. One of those earlier this year, right after THERMPROCESS, was Hydro Aluminum in Spain; we melted aluminum with hydrogen without any natural gas. That was, I think, the first industrial scale melting of aluminum with hydrogen.

Wuenning: We have now put into place an electrolyzer for making our own hydrogen, and not relying on the bottles coming in or on ammonia supply. We installed a big ammonia tank so that we can run the ammonia tests on site, develop the crackers and account for them. And, of course, we are involved in several research projects together with universities and some sites that do all these things to try it out.

Kelly: The latest this year is an investment for one of our factories to have an electrolyzer-type system, so a full-blown, cradle-to-grave type of system to be able to produce the hydrogen. Muncie is investing in that whole substructure with the capability of increasing to tube tankers before the electrolyzer comes so there is significant investment on that end. And from the product end, we’ve just kept testing and looking at the whole product line, not just burners, but all the controls and things to be associated with hydrogen firing. In addition to the controls behind the system, we must also think about the development of simpler and/or more complicated systems. These updated systems are necessary because of changes in air/fuel rations and all the concerns that pop up when using different fuels. These systems need to take into account what the process is requiring, namely holding tighter air/fuel ratios and also being less dependent on low temperature air-heating applications, but also being able to use higher temperatures and higher oxygen rates with some excess air. We’ve been working on those types of systems and looking at that when the clients are in a situation where they can fire on either fuel. How critical it is to hold capacity and air/fuel ratio and things of that nature, and how can we make that as easy as possible for the client? But, yes, a lot of activity on that basis. And even in product development looking at the future — lower NOx and lower emissions burners that go in conjunction with hydrogen. In the lower and high temperature range, we’ve got to look at a burner that can fi re via flex-fuel type burner. Maybe not just hydrogen and natural gas but something in biofuels or renewable-type fuels.

About The Experts

  • Joachim (Joe) Wuenning is the owner and CEO of WS Thermal Process Technology.
  • Brian Kelly is the applications engineering manager at Honeywell Thermal Solutions.
  • Robert Sanderson is the director of business development at Rockford Combustion.
  • Mark Hannum is the manager of the innovation and combustion laboratory at Fives North American Combustion.

For more information: Visit www.heattreattoday.com/hydrogen2023

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