Published December 2015
Hydrogen is produced in large quantities as both a principal product and a by-product, with annual global consumption estimated at around 680 billion normal cubic meters (Nm3). The largest volumes of intentionally produced or merchant hydrogen are consumed at refineries, in ammonia production, and in methanol production. These sectors account for over 90% of total hydrogen demand. Other outlets like fuel cell applications are small, but they tend to be fast-growing with plenty of future potential. Opportunities in hydrogen look strong over the next several years, with annual consumption expected to grow on average by nearly 4% per year, taking the overall market to around 820 billion Nm3 by 2019.
Hydrogen does not exist in nature in its elemental state and must be produced from natural resources with the expenditure of energy. It can be produced from fossil fuels, water, or biomass using thermal, electrolytic, enzymatic, and photolytic processes. Renewable and nuclear energy resources can also be used to produce hydrogen from water using thermal or electrolytic processes. However, commercial hydrogen production is typically achieved by reforming or oxidizing a hydrocarbon feedstock to generate synthesis gas, or syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas), followed by a water-gas shift reaction step to convert carbon monoxide into additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with a final purification step to separate hydrogen from carbon dioxide. Steam reforming of natural gas is the most preferred commercial route for hydrogen production.
This process summary reviews the key technology features and presents detailed process economics for the following hydrogen production processes:
- Large-scale hydrogen by steam reforming of natural gas
- Large-scale hydrogen by steam reforming of light naphtha
- Large-scale hydrogen from bituminous coal via GE Quench gasifier
- Large-scale hydrogen from subbituminous coal via GE Quench gasifier
- Large-scale hydrogen by noncatalytic partial oxidation of residual oil
- Small-scale hydrogen by steam reforming of natural gas
- Small-scale hydrogen by catalytic partial oxidation of natural gas
- Small-scale hydrogen by electrolysis of water
- Small-scale hydrogen by single-step synthesis from natural gas
- Small-scale hydrogen from methanol by catalytic oxidative steam reforming
Given that feedstock prices can fluctuate greatly over time, a traditional process economics snapshot comparison for a particular time and region can often be misleading if applied to investment decisions. For investment purposes, using a historical process economics comparison over a long period of time provides a better basis. To address the impact of feedstock price fluctuations, this process summary includes an iPEPSpectra™ interactive data module that allows for quickly comparing historical process economics of competing technologies in several major regions from 2000 to 2015 on a quarterly basis. The iPEPSpectra™ module uses Microsoft Excel pivot tables and is attached with the electronic version of this process summary. The module provides a powerful interactive tool for comparing process economics at various levels, such variable costs, plant gate costs, full production costs, and capital costs. An iPEPSpectra™ historical economic comparison provides a more comprehensive assessment of competing technologies and enhances investment decisions.