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Baker Hughes NovaLT12 turbine at test bench in Florence, Italy
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Turbines of tomorrow

The successful test of a hybrid turbine, with hydrogen blended into natural gas, is a significant milestone on the journey to decarbonised gas grids

Baker Hughes, in partnership with Italian gas network operator Snam, announced on 20 July the successful testing of its ­NovaLT12, which it says is the world’s first hybrid hydrogen turbine designed for a gas network. The test clears the way for Snam to blend hydrogen into its transmission system, which it plans to do from early 2022.

Baker Hughes designed and manufactured the NovaLT12 in its Florence facility and it will be installed less than 300km northeast at Snam’s gas compressor station in Istrana, near Venice. It will be powered by a blend of up to 10pc hydrogen, although it can run on 100pc. This is possible because 70pc of Snam’s pipelines are already built with ‘hydrogen-ready’ pipes.

Luca Maria Rossi is vice president technology at Baker Hughes’ Turbomachinery & Process Solutions  business. He leads a team of more than 2,000 engineers and product managers and is responsible for developing the business’ technology strategy and portfolio.

Many companies are making their first steps into hydrogen industry. What separates Baker Hughes?

Rossi: We have been dealing with hydrogen for many years—since the early 1960s—and are now putting all our learning into developing technology that can deal with the new demand for hydrogen-ready products. Our strategy is to adapt what we have learned in the past, for example from the refinery sector, for the new world. We are using our core products to make steps into the hydrogen value chain.

We also have long experience of working with hydrogen, especially around compressors, so we can utilise our knowledge of materials and behaviours.

“I would not be surprised if very soon we will see a real commercial project with 100pc hydrogen”

We develop our technology with partners, such as Snam, so we are sure it is very close to what the market wants. By cooperating, we understand what are the most critical performance attributes and capabilities a product needs to have.

How do you envisage the role of hydrogen in power generation?

Rossi: There is an immediate application if you can burn it in gas turbines. 10pc is a very significant step. In a typical Italian pipeline grid, 10pc hydrogen is [equivalent to] to the annual gas consumption of 3mn families.

We took our traditional combustion technology and adapted it to burn hydrogen. It is a very modern gas turbine, as the NovaLT family was introduced five years ago. We have the capability to burn hydrogen across the gas turbine family—from 5MW to almost 20MW.

We have already tested 1-10pc. For sure, we will be the only company that has a unit in commercial operation burning hydrogen. It is a very big step. And we continue to do a lot of R&D, also in collaboration with our customers.

We have already configured one of the units to run at 100pc. We have been leveraging all our technology capabilities, in Tuscany, Italy leveraging one of the largest combustion laboratories in the world—named Sestalab—where we can do full-scale tests, as well as in our own labs in Florence. We have extensive prototype testing in the laboratory so we just need to validate what we have learned. This gives us a very big advantage and makes sure we are successful when we test with our customers.

How much do you need to adapt the technology for it to be able to combust 100pc hydrogen?

Rossi: We are able to go 100pc. Depending on the level, it requires different changes. Hydrogen as a fuel is very promising, but it is different from natural gas. Our duty is to study the behaviour, in particular the behaviour of the combustion of hydrogen and the shape of the combustors, but also the system around the combustor to make it effective and capable of burning hydrogen. The development was in line with a typical process, but some of the challenges were very peculiar to the project.

What differences are there in terms of how materials react when burning hydrogen compared with natural gas?

Rossi: Materials is a key point. They become incredibly important in hydrogen compressors as there is a completely different level of stress. You need materials that are particularly suitable for hydrogen management.

Was there a specific reason for choosing the particular location for the installation?

Rossi: It was the first available project for us to apply this technology with a customer. It was the timing of the investment that drove the project. Snam’s idea is to transport 10pc hydrogen everywhere in the grid. 70pc of Snam’s existing Italian pipeline network is already capable of transporting this blend. Snam is putting a lot of effort into taking this leap.

Although most of the grid is 10pc hydrogen-ready, there are other things that need to be adopted, especially on the user side. For instance, while industrial customers are largely ready, heat exchangers are not very well prepared. You can burn hydrogen in gas turbines, you can burn it in some heaters, but the domestic usage of hydrogen still has to be assessed.

Do you have a timeline in mind for the buildout of hydrogen?

Rossi: We should look carefully the EU’s roadmap for hydrogen. 2030 is the year where the hydrogen economy should be enabled. But, like any roadmap, it is long term so we need to watch it and study. We notice that funding for clean energy and, in particular, hydrogen is withstanding the crisis of Covid-19. We see there is still the right level of attention in political and administrative environments to push for a cleaner solution, so we are happy to keep working on the development programme.

“Funding for clean energy and in particular hydrogen is withstanding the crisis of Covid-19”

What are the cost implications of introducing 10pc hydrogen into the grid? How can Snam and other operators cover the cost of this more expensive technology?

Rossi: New technology is costly, but economies come with scale. The first green transition was after the Second World War, when the world moved from crude oil to natural gas. There was a big investment requirement for pipelines into Italy, coming from Russia and Algeria, so the public sector took the lead. Hydrogen has the advantage that most of the network is already there and just needs to be adapted. There will be costs, but most likely this transition will be faster.

To what extent will the growth of hydrogen depend on state support?

Rossi: At the moment, pure hydrogen projects need subsidies to be economically viable. Lots of pilots and experiments are still going on to validate the best technologies. This is true from Europe to Australia, so there is clearly a role for subsidies. But CO₂ taxation is becoming bigger everywhere—and the more CO₂ taxation goes up, the more hydrogen and clean fuel projects will become economic by themselves. So there is also a role for regulation. I think increasing CO₂ taxation and favouring clean fuels is the right play.

Do you have any concerns around hydrogen storage?

Rossi: Hydrogen has a completely different level of flammability compared with natural gas, so it requires special care. Clearly, when the scale is there, the technology will be available for proper storage. I do not see it as a problem—the required scale of investment will come with a bigger scale of usage. Like every fuel, you need to treat it with care. But we have the technology to handle this in every step of the process. The industry has been dealing with hydrogen for many years and it is produced every day. The name of the game is to get to the scale that has the right economics.

There are many components to the hydrogen economy, from creating the gas and storing it to establishing use cases. Do these all need to emerge at the same time for the market to grow?

10pc – Level of hydrogen blended into natural gas for turbine test

Rossi: There are multiple ways for the hydrogen economy to grow and there are already a lot of pilots and experiments going on. Progress is very connected to cost—you build technology to ensure you get to the right cost, to allow for industrial use. There will be a race for the best solutions.

A lot of things need to happen. There are discussions around combining hydrogen with ammonia for transportation, but also as a pure liquid. In the short term, blue hydrogen will be easier as it comes from hydrocarbons, the industry knows already very well how to make it, and the technology is largely available and affordable. The market is looking at green hydrogen, but it needs to be economically sustainable in order to be perceived as a viable fuel. Electrolysis is one of the things that will benefit from scale.

What are your next steps? Is the turbine capable of running at 100pc hydrogen?

Rossi: We are already talking about 100pc hydrogen. Back in 2008, we had provided a 100pc hydrogen gas turbine based on a different design—for a pilot project in Fusina, near Venice, with Italian grid provider Enel—and we learned a lot from that.

I would not be surprised if very soon we will see a real commercial project with 100pc hydrogen. It will most likely be connected to ammonia production, or an ammonia facility, because at the moment this is the most economical way. There are lots of different places where things are happening. Saudi Arabia, Australia and North America are a few examples.

How do you envisage demand developing for hydrogen gas turbines over the next few years?

Rossi: We think it is a very promising market. It is a market that ties up with the evolution of the energy transition. It is a market that will help produce less emissions and pollution. And it is a market where we can play very well, with our technology and our strengths. It is very, very promising and we are going after it with all our energy.

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