Christophe Smitz
Economic and Commercial Counsellor
Wallonia Export-Investment Agency
Expert Contributor

Green Hydrogen in Wallonia

By Christophe Smitz | Tue, 06/08/2021 - 13:07

Wallonia is strategically placed to become the next center for the development of clean hydrogen, with a post-coronavirus stimulus package that makes way for the development of green hydrogen. Wallonia indeed wishes to invest more than €160 million (US$196 million) in the development of a Walloon hydrogen industry.

In a nutshell, hydrogen (H2) can be the perfect way to:

  • Stock up on green energy
  • Replace some fossil fuels
  • Participate in Carbon Capture & Utilization (CCU)

Wallonia in Belgium implemented an ambitious H2 strategy based on:

  • An easy access to H2, either through the existing pipelines (on its own or combined with other gases) or the implementation of pumps for vehicles.
  • An industrial basis capable of developing and implementing these solutions in the different markets: John Cockerill, Materia Nova, Yara, Dardenne, Safran, Carmeuse.

Wallonia is at the root of projects such as the construction of a hydrogen production station, generated by the incineration of waste in Charleroi. This hydrogen is then used to power local buses. Wallonia also invested in a project led by Liège Airport and the company John Cockerill, focusing on the construction of a station to transform the electricity produced by solar panels into hydrogen to power the airport’s vehicles and interested local firms, thus creating a hydrogen cluster.

Wallonia offers numerous advantages: a central position, right between the electrical, gas, road and fluvial transportation grids, not forgetting a capacity to implement technological innovations very quickly. Another example: a clean, carbon-free hydrogen corridor with H2 stations is emerging between Wallonia and Catalonia to carry fruits and vegetables from Morocco, Spain, and Portugal through hydrogen trucks and trailers.

Green hydrogen is therefore a priority for Wallonia, which has dedicated a budget of nearly €8 million (US$9.8 million) to research and innovation over three years. The Walloon Region appears among the most active regions in Europe. These research projects focus on each level of the energy industry, among them:

  • WALLONHY: focuses more on electrolyzers, a key element in energy storage. In this regard, John Cockerill is the world leader in the production of electrolyzers.
  • INTERESTS: on one hand, it focuses on the predictivity of the electrical production to prepare an economic optimization of hydrogen production and, on the other hand, it grants a particular importance to the physical storage of hydrogen as a way to reduce costs in the sector.
  • HYLIFE: offers to develop new fuel cells at a low cost.
  • INOXYPEM: will work on bipolar plates, another component of the fuel cell.
  • HYSTACK: offers to develop the skill of the University of Liège in the testing of fuel cells through a high-performance test bench in cogeneration.
  • LOOP-FC: will focus on home fuel cells by optimizing their thermal management and assessing their cogeneration potential.
  • SWARM: aims to implement small hydrogen vehicles.
  • “H2High” is another Walloon project that aims to bring the actors of the industrial fabric together around hydrogen. It will also help to get through the current economic and health crisis, to diversify activities and to revive the economy. The idea is to transpose skills from one sector to another, use the existing expertise in the space and aeronautic fields and leading to green mobility, which is familiar with hydrogen technology (mastery of machining, cooling technology…). At this point, three main ends in terms of green mobility have been identified: hydrogen train, light vehicles and building site machinery. In this regard, Wallonia could become a technology supplier (development of microturbines, adaptation of space valve technology in the industrial sector, refueling station technology to recharge vehicles…). This “H2High” project, for which the financing is estimated to be €6-10 million (US$7-12 million), is due for completion in the coming weeks.

Other projects are also being studied, some more advanced than others. For example, Wallonia could produce clean hydrogen from mine gas. This project is led by a research center based in Mons, Materia Nova. Its goal is to produce hydrogen from methane, a component of firedamp. This highly flammable gas, mainly released from coal mines, is transformed into thermal energy and electricity. Nevertheless, this process produces CO2. Most of the hydrogen used in the industry today is derived from methane (grey hydrogen), which can be explained by the cost of water electrolysis, which is three to four times higher than grey hydrogen, and by the quantity of water, which is much more important. However, the hydrogen produced from water molecule appears to be “THE” solution for green or sustainable hydrogen since this method doesn’t create CO2. This solution is bound to develop, but it will take time.

The process developed by Materia Nova allows the use of existing and profitable technologies while avoiding the production of CO2 and is also a transitional solution between the polluting and omnipresent grey hydrogen and the non-profitable green hydrogen. Currently, two main deposits have been identified in Wallonia: the first is biomethane, particularly present in agriculture, and the second is firedamp, a source available for hydrogen and carbon production, especially as solid carbon (or black carbon) has its own industrial purposes among which the best-known is the tire industry, which represents roughly 70% of the global carbon black market, and black plastics. More and more applications are growing: in paintings, in high-added value applications, such as battery electrodes, for instance. Other applications of solid carbon are being studied, especially in agriculture, where it could eventually be used to make infertile soil fertile.

Materia Nova’s project gathers a consortium of Walloon manufacturers: whitewash and glass producers and a major fertilizer producer. The current goal is to identify all Walloon mines where mine gas could be used to produce clean hydrogen.

John Cockerill, a firm based in Liège, is a world leader in the design and manufacture of electrolyzers and equipment designed for green hydrogen production. John Cockerill is very active in the energy industry and will supply Air Liquide with electrolyzers with a total capacity of 25MW for the Taiwanese market. These five large electrolyzers will be established on two production sites on the Asian island and will be used in the semiconductors industry. They will allow the transformation of water into pure hydrogen at a rhythm of 5000 Nm3/hour. This equipment will avoid the emission of 20,000 tons of CO2/year.

John Cockerill, Carmeuse and Engie Belgium have signed a joint development agreement for an innovative project of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) in Wallonia. This project will make it possible to concentrate the CO2, to combine it with green hydrogen and to produce “e-methane,” a renewable gas that can be injected into the gas network or used in transport or industry. Green hydrogen will be produced by an electrolysis plant of 75MW powered by green electricity. This project is the largest of its kind in the world. It paves the new way for a significant reduction of carbon emissions in Europe and the world.

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Photo by:   Christophe Smitz