Interview with Tassilo Gast from Emerson
If hydrogen is expected to change the world, then the associated industries need to massively expand their capacities in the next few years. That will only happen if you build on existing knowledge. This is vital when it comes to scaling and automation, explains Tassilo Gast from automation specialist Emerson in his interview with H2-international.
H2-international: The hydrogen industry needs to grow extremely rapidly in the years ahead. What do companies, for example electrolyzer manufacturers, need to be especially aware of?
Gast: The electrolyzer projects that have been announced in the news are between 100 megawatts and 1 gigawatt in size. The electrolyzers installed up until now mostly have electrical capacities of 2 or 5 megawatts. That represents considerable growth and therefore a huge challenge for manufacturers.
Electrolyzers usually have a modular construction. For the most part, this principle still stands when they are scaled up, if only because of the physical and electrochemical limits on the size of the stacks. These days, stacks with around 2.5 megawatts of electrical capacity are commonplace. Even if a stack in the future were to be 10 megawatts, you would need 10 of them for a 100-megawatt electrolyzer, and hundreds of them for a gigawatt project. If I simply line up 10 modules side by side using the “scale up by numbering up” principle, then I have 10 times the number of interfaces, 10 times the number of cable ducts and so on. Wiring, balancing and controlling all that is highly complex. Consequently you have to rethink the system architecture.
If we take a large electrolyzer plant as an example – what would a successful scale-up with adapted system architecture look like?
The key thing is for someone to look at the overall system early on. In the case of Emerson, we have a dedicated business unit for systems. In theory, the manufacturers could also do it themselves, but they often just don’t have the capacity in the growth phase to take this step or return to this step and look at the overall picture.
Depending on the scaling factor, initially it can all be about taking small steps, for instance the merging of balancing groups. However, from a certain size, no later than several hundred megawatts, you have to build in a completely different way. At that point you can no longer install the modules in individual shipping containers, as you do for smaller plants – if only because the total cost of the containers would be too expensive. Instead, you build a plant with the stacks on a plot of land along with the accompanying plant units, for example for water treatment, as in greenfield projects. The electrolyzer would be planned in a similar way to a traditional chemical plant, on open ground – or under cover – with separate processing and plant sections. When we’re part of a process like that, it’s very important to work together closely. Together you have to take a long, hard look at the process so that you really manage to leverage the efficiency potential and cut down the time to market.
In addition to the redundancy of components and the spatial arrangement, are there other problems when scaling up that can be avoided with appropriate planning?
Yes, there are, for example in relation to safety. Hydrogen is, of course, an explosive gas. And the amount of gas increases as the plant size grows and this also increases the potential risk for surrounding areas. Equipment and fittings have to meet safety and disconnection guidelines; in the event of a fault, it must be possible to shut down safely. There is special software from AspenTech, which Emerson has owned since 2022, that helps to scale up a plant virtually, and indicates foreseeable bottlenecks and safety issues.
What role can a digital twin play in this kind of virtual scale-up?
The expression “digital twin” is used in lots of different ways. In its simplest form, it means a virtual map of the plant. The next step is to populate the digital map with data from the process in operation. This allows you to verify if the simulation tallies with reality. Emerson’s digital twins are able to verify data from the simulation with responses from field instruments and control elements from the field and thus preempt the behavior of the process. That’s immensely helpful, for example in the case of electrolyzer manufacturers or EPCs, when it’s all about assessing in advance the scaling effects of plants that are in the process of becoming larger. Finally, it enables better operational management – with higher efficiency, lower costs and longer component life.
Have you already delivered this kind of scale-up for an electrolyzer manufacturer so you can tell us about your experiences?
We have a lot of initial projects in the hydrogen sector around the globe. For instance, we’ve fitted out the world’s largest PEM electrolyzer plant with a control system, valves and instruments. It’s at Air Liquide in Bécancour, Canada. Emerson has also taken care of the integration into the on-site chemical process.
Here, we are able to draw on our know-how from other sectors. Regardless of which electrolyzer technology is being used – PEM, alkaline, AEM – scaled-up electrolyzers all need a lot of water, for example. The water has to be demineralized and conveyed to the electrolyzer and arrive there at the correct temperature and at the correct pressure. We take care of measuring all these factors, finding the right valves and fittings and controlling the process – from the electrolyzer, to gas separation and dehydration through gas analysis at the end to check the quality level of the hydrogen.
Stack production is essentially already highly automated. Bipolar plates are screwed automatically, for example. In some cases, Emerson components are used, for instance to place components in a certain position using compressed air.
Which companies in the hydrogen sector would also be interested in working with Emerson on automation or other improvements?
We’re active throughout the entire hydrogen value chain: in hydrogen production, in transportation and distribution as well as in our work with end users. An end user of hydrogen can be a large chemicals group, a steel group or a refinery, but equally a company from the papermaking, life sciences or cement industries. For example we have installed a system consisting of a large number of hydrogen refueling stations for an independent operator from South Korea. The operator now sees exactly how much hydrogen is needed at what time and at which refueling stations; it knows how many refueling operations take place, whether there are problems somewhere and what logistical measures it has to take to adjust its delivery logistics to meet requirements. These sorts of overarching control systems and system architectures for recording data and signals also play a role in large sector-coupling projects in which all steps can be monitored and aligned with each other – from the production of green power using wind or photovoltaics to hydrogen production by means of electrolysis through distribution via pipelines and refueling stations or to fuel cells.
In another instance, we have supplied a complete blending station for injecting hydrogen into the natural gas grid. Here, we worked together with a partner from the plant engineering industry. For a manufacturer of hydrogen plants and EPCs, that’s a big advantage. The manufacturer has a central point of contact for all aspects of automation that supplies everything from a single source. That’s not only much quicker but also brings the manufacturer a clear CAPEX benefit.
Is everything going quickly enough to cope with the ramp-up of the hydrogen industry?
For a successful ramp-up, all parts of the industry need to scale together. Silo thinking which is focused on individual plants or manufacturers is not helpful. When many electrolyzer manufacturers scale up, they simply do what they already know but increase the size and numbers. However, if you don’t adapt the system architecture, the CAPEX costs rise, and inefficiencies occur that just don’t need to exist. If you look into the general concept of automation at an early stage, aside from the development of new membranes or other research work, there is vast potential to reduce costs. To leverage this, you have to test out all manner of ideas and concepts early on and it needs an automation partner with a complete portfolio. Everyone has to be open with their partners as far as possible in order to identify potential together.
Can good automation in Germany and Europe enable us to stay competitive in hydrogen technology?
In Europe we have an incredible spectrum of companies and organizations from the hydrogen industry, especially in Germany. The technologies of these companies have a very high technology readiness level – plants are exported around the world. There are a lot of companies with a great deal of know-how. Even if staffing costs are higher here, that hardly has a bearing compared with other aspects. The problem has far more to do with regulation and policy. In the US, for example, there is the Inflation Reduction Act which provides a huge amount of support to companies if they create value in the US. It’s aimed particularly at companies in the environmental and sustainability sectors, such as manufacturers of hydrogen plants or subareas of the hydrogen value chain. It’s pointing the way for European industry, which means Europe must urgently readjust.
Another issue is that the approvals for projects and plants in Europe take far too long and are too diverse. A consistent regulatory framework would simplify a lot of things. It’s not just approvals that are time-consuming; other political commitments, such as funding and guidelines or targets, take an extremely long time in Europe. A case in point is the RED III Directive. The EU has now announced higher overall targets and updated the speed of the approvals procedure. Despite this, the procedures still take too long. If the hydrogen industry is expected to stay and scale up further in Europe and in Germany, then many things here have to become a lot faster.
Tassilo Gast is Emerging Market Business Development Manager for the DACH region (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) at Emerson. The company, which employs around 70,000 members of staff worldwide, specializes in automation solutions. Its offering includes hardware such as valves and measuring equipment, software for simulation and operational management as well as services including consultancy and design. In May 2022, Emerson acquired a majority stake in the company AspenTech, a specialist in process simulation software. Emerson works with customers in a wide variety of sectors, from breweries to refineries. The company also has many customers in the hydrogen industry. Its headquarters are in Saint Louis in the US state of Missouri.
Author: Eva Augsten