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  • Hydrogen awaits for new uses

    Hydrogen is widely used in the petrochemical, fertiliser and refinery industries. Steel mills and cement plants are interested in using hydrogen. The key will be to replace hydrogen produced from fossil fuels with green hydrogen, e.g. produced from biomethane or by electrolysis using energy from renewable sources.

    Poland is Europe's third and the world's fifth producer of hydrogen, but almost all of it is produced by reforming from fossil fuels and used locally in industrial plants. Four companies: Grupa Azoty, PKN Orlen, Grupa Lotos and JSW account for three quarters of hydrogen production in Poland. Grupa Azoty, which uses hydrogen in the ammonia synthesis process, has the largest market share and its two plants - in Kędzierzyn Koźle and Puławy - are among the few in Poland to already offer hydrogen commercially.

    Hydrogen is currently used mainly in the production of fertilisers, desulphurisation of fuels and processing of heavy crude oil fractions. Hydrogen is also obtained in the process of brine electrolysis as a by-product of chlorine production. In addition, it is used in the glass industry and in the power generation industry as a cooling gas in generators.

    On the other hand, high-purity hydrogen (grade 5 - 99.999 per cent) is used by the food industry, laboratories and electronics manufacturers, as well as to power fuel cells in transport. The role of pure hydrogen will grow, but now hydrogen of this class is available on the Polish market only in small quantities and is therefore imported.

    The use of hydrogen in new areas of industry is linked to decarbonisation and companies moving away from fossil fuels. The use of hydrogen instead of coal and gas is considered in industries where high temperatures are needed in production processes. At the same time, many industrial plants have sites where electrolysers powered by renewable energy can be built, such as on post-mining sites.

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    Another area of application for hydrogen is in steel production in steel mills, where this gas can replace coking coal to a greater extent. Hydrogen serves as a reductant for ore containing oxides, which leads to the production of crude iron. In the city of Luleå in northern Sweden, SAAB and Vattenfall have started producing steel in an electric furnace (EAF) with direct iron reduction (DRI) technology. This is also one of the decarbonisation scenarios for ArcelorMittal Poland's steel mill in Dabrowa Górnicza. However, while the Swedes use cheap energy from hydroelectric plants and wind farms to produce hydrogen by electrolysis, there are currently no large energy surpluses in Poland that would allow such steel production.

    Also in the cement industry, hydrogen can gradually replace fossil fuels. One of the main cement producers, Cemex, uses an electrolyser powered by renewable energy at its Alicante cement plant in Spain, and is in the process of testing this technology in Poland. The company aims to reduce global CO2 emissions by 35% by 2030.

    The glass industry uses hydrogen in air-oxygen combustion plants as this improves heat transfer and speeds up the melting and softening of glass. In the UK, at the Pilkington glassworks in St. Helens successfully trialled the complete replacement of natural gas with hydrogen. The full conversion of this glassworks to hydrogen will be possible with a stable supply, e.g. by pipeline.

    The use of hydrogen in new industries is associated with higher costs for these technologies, in the case of steel these additional costs are estimated to be as high as 50% to 60%. Higher CO2 emission rights costs, rising fossil fuel prices and, in the future, a carbon border tax (CBAM) may improve the competitiveness of hydrogen use.