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Hydrogen, the potential of an energy vector

The path to decarbonization is paved with H₂.

by Eni Staff
23 March 2021
10 min read
by Eni Staff
23 March 2021
10 min read

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen (H2) is an energy vector that has shown great promise worldwide as a solution for meeting climate challenges. This is because it is able to store and supply large quantities of energy without creating CO2 emissions during combustion.

It is the simplest and most abundant element on the planet, though rarely available in its free molecular state (H2). Instead, it is usually found in combination with other chemical elements (such as water - H2O, hydrocarbons - CH4 etc…).

1 mainly used for ammonia production and in the refining sector

mainly for methanol production and in the steel industry

Eni’s commitment to hydrogen

At Eni, we are working on all aspects of low-carbon hydrogen production: from natural gas reforming in combination with emissions capture (‘blue hydrogen’) to renewable energy (‘green hydrogen’) and, following a circular economy approach, developing technologies for producing sustainable hydrogen from waste products. 

As part of our commitment to hydrogen, Eni has recently joined the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance and is also one of 17 players from the energy sector participating in the ‘Hydrogen for Europe’ study, the aim of which is to assess how hydrogen can contribute to achieving climate neutrality on the continent.

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Eni is the largest producer and consumer of hydrogen in Italy, but we have to work to create a system that makes these investments and this development viable, and which will lead to the creation of a true market for hydrogen.

Claudio Descalzi

Promoting the use of low-carbon hydrogen throughout the decarbonization process would make a key contribution to reducing emissions and help pave the way to EU carbon neutrality by 2050. Low-carbon hydrogen would also provide a solution to the decarbonization of highly energy-intensive (‘hard-to-abate’) industries where electrification is not currently feasible. 

Hydrogen production technologies are complementary and not competing. At Eni, we believe there is a need for a shared classification of hydrogen production technologies according to how much they contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We believe that following a technologically-neutral approach is crucial, developing and applying all available and sustainable low-carbon technologies across the board, without excluding any.

At Eni, we therefore believe that an effective hydrogen strategy should recognise and support the contribution that all forms of clean hydrogen make towards decarbonization, also in order to maximise resource efficiency and the implementation of circular economy principles.

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Eni’s projects for hydrogen

We are one of the largest producers and consumers of hydrogen in Italy. To date, hydrogen has been used mainly as a feedstock in traditional refining processes, as well as for the production of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) biofuels in our Venice and Gela biorefineries.

Hydrogen, in our refineries and biorefineries, is used directly in the production processes. It is produced mainly by steam methane reforming (SMR), a technology now widely adopted in the industry.

As part of our strategy and with the aim of having a further and concrete possibility to decarbonize hard-to-abate production processes, as Eni we have identify in this area a great transformation opportunity.

The principal projects for the production of low-carbon hydrogen in which we are involved are:

Decarbonization of existing plants and hydrogen production using CCS systems

At Eni, we want to produce blue hydrogen by steam reforming of natural gas with capture of the CO2 associated to the production process. This will contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of hydrogen used as feedstock in our plants, in line with the gradual decarbonisation of our energy products.

The purpose of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is primarily to reduce CO2 emissions from heavy industry (including refining, iron and steel, glass, chemicals, cement plants etc.), while at the same time promoting the development of a blue-energy supply chain (blue hydrogen and blue energy).

In Italy, the Ravenna area presents a unique opportunity for the production of blue hydrogen, thanks to our ‘Adriatic Blue’ project. By taking advantage of the combination of depleted offshore gas deposits and existing infrastructures, this will provide a secure storage site for all industrial emissions in the area.

kGas

Our research and development teams are currently developing kGas, a technology that can be used to convert natural gas into syngas (the mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that, through partial catalytic oxidation of natural gas, can become a valuable source of H2).

In addition to being a more energy-efficient system than those currently on the market, kGas is able to produce syngas and hydrogen with a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, potentially using biomethane as a raw material. This process could become the technology of choice for the production of blue hydrogen as it allows for more efficient CO2 capture.

Waste-to-Hydrogen

The circular economy is one of the pillars of Eni’s decarbonization strategy. In our Venice refinery we are currently assessing the implementation of our Waste-to-Hydrogen project, which is based on an innovative gasification technology. It is a process for the production of sustainable hydrogen through the gasification of non-recyclable waste (i.e. Plasmix1 and SSF2) – waste that is currently used in waste-to-energy plants or sent to landfill. It allows for the production of sustainable H2 in synergy with refinery plants, therefore helping to reduce emissions linked to conventional waste treatment and conventional hydrogen production. With an on-site gasification system for hydrogen production, a GHG saving of 90% can be achieved compared to hydrogen production from steam reforming. The calculation of GHG savings is carried out on a life-cycle analysis (LCA) basis and takes into account the emissions avoided by using waste as feedstock for the Waste-to-Hydrogen project instead of as feedstock for a conventional waste-to-energy plant.

1 Plasmix: non-recyclable plastic waste

2 SSF: secondary solid fuel – fraction derived from sorted waste in mechanical-biological treatment plants

Hydrogen from water electrolysis

At Eni, we are also developing projects to produce hydrogen from renewable sources through water electrolysis (‘green hydrogen’).

To support these efforts, Eni and Enel, two of the world’s leading energy companies, have joined forces to develop green hydrogen projects together. The electrolysers will be located near two of the Eni refineries where green hydrogen presents the best option for decarbonization. Each of the two pilot projects will feature an electrolyser of around 10 MW and they are expected to begin producing green hydrogen by 2022-2023.

Green hydrogen is also part of the collaboration among Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), Eni and Snam for the decarbonisation of the energy system. Specifically, the three companies, in accordance with the applicable regulations (primarily the unbundling regulation), will promote possible joint initiatives, including partnerships, aimed at developing the production, transportation and marketing of green hydrogen. The cooperation will also involve the production and use of hydrogen in rail transport, leveraging Eni’s expertise in the field of electricity and renewable energy production and Snam’s expertise in infrastructure and electrolysers, as well as in storage and logistics solutions. 

The H2iseO project with FNM

Finally, in April 2021, we signed a Letter of Intent with FNM SpA to establish a strategic partnership for the decarbonization of transport in Lombardy – an undertaking that also involves the use of hydrogen. This joint venture is one aspect of the H2iseO project initiated by FNM and train operator Trenord (in which FNM has a shareholding). The project is likely to transform the Lake Iseo/Valcamonica region into Italy’s ‘Hydrogen Valley’.

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ENERGY SHOT#11 - The hydrogen way

Hydrogen and sustainable mobility

Hydrogen is a compelling option for sustainable mobility in the medium term, having great potential for development as an energy carrier for cars and especially for hard-to-abate transport sectors such as heavy and long-distance road transport where electrical solutions are not technically viable. It could also offer a solution for maritime mobility in the long term.

Furthermore, hydrogen produced from waste can contribute to achieving decarbonization targets for the transport sector under EU Directive 2018/2001, which recognises the contribution of fuels from recycled carbon. At present, however, the development of European mobility based on hydrogen is hampered by high production and distribution costs and the lack of an adequate infrastructure network.

For this reason, at Eni, we are currently working on the development of two hydrogen refuelling stations: one in San Donato Milanese, where hydrogen will be produced on site using an electrolyser, and another in the municipality of Venice. 

Hydrogen can also be used for generating electricity

At Eni, we have gained substantial expertise in the combustion of hydrogen and natural gas blends in existing gas turbines. In this area, we are currently developing technology to increase the percentage of hydrogen used to fuel our Enipower gas turbines to generate low-carbon electricity.