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Optimize green and blue H2 plants with a digital-first strategy

Digital Technologies

R. NG, Rockwell Automation, Houston, Texas; and C. MARCON, Endress+Hauser, Ashville, North Carolina

Major projects from Europe’s largest green hydrogen (H2) electrolyzer plant to a proposed multi-billion-dollar blue H2 plant in Texas (U.S.) signal that the low-carbon H2 era has arrived. However, companies eager to secure a share of the green and blue H2 markets face huge unknownsindustry standards and best practices for these operations are still works in progress.

Low-carbon H2 producers cannot afford a learn-it-as-you-go strategy given the size and cost of these projects, not to mention the risks of producing H2 in confined spaces. They must ensure their operations are optimized from the start and digitalized for continuous monitoring and improvement.

Using best-in-class process control, instrumentation and safety solutions is part of the answer, but technology alone is not enough. Producers must also ensure their technologiesas well as their people and processesare seamlessly connected and ready for scale. Only by doing this can they gain the necessary real-time visibility into their processes and innovate their operations in ways that optimize safety, efficiency and reliability.

Creating the foundation. Green and blue H2 production may involve different processes, but they both require the same thing: automated and intelligent controlled chemical-reaction units. These units are needed for H2 production through traditional steam methane reforming (SMR) with carbon capture for blue H2. For green H2, the two main chemical processes are proton exchange membrane (PEM) or alkaline electrolysis.

Modular, containerized units that are scalable, easily integrated and centrally controlled can help provide producers the flexibility to deploy from pilot to plant scale. For example, one electrolyzer unit used in green H2 production may have a capacity of 1 MW5 MW. This means that dozens of these units must be deployed and integrated to reach a target plant capacity of hundreds of MW.

The units must also be designed to create safe, reliable, secure and responsive operations. Data must flow freely across disparate systems from instruments to process controllers, and then to the plant floor or a local or global centralized operation center. The data must be contextualized to equip operators with usable insights to take actions, whether responding to pump failures, compressor inefficiencies, feedstock alerts or energy optimization needs such as renewable power, water or gas.

The system architecture for these units should leverage the open standard (OPC UA) to support interoperability among devices and systems. By using this vendor-agnostic standard, a producer can choose the solutions that best fit its operational needs without worrying about time-consuming integration and lifecycle maintenance challenges.  

Nevertheless, H2 producers can take advantage of technology integration work that vendors and system integrators have already done for them. For instance, a number of process automation and instrumentation vendors, including the authors’ companies, have worked together to proof test their products and systems for interoperability and configurability in an open platform. This can speed up time to market from design to commissioning with seamless maintenance support on an agile platform, thus lowering overall lifecycle cost.


With a foundation for connected operations in place, low-carbon H2 producers can optimize their operations with capabilities discussed in the following sections.

Information-driven operations. When reliable process data can be freely accessed and shared across a unified architecture integrating smart sensors with an intelligent automation system, a H2 producer can start putting it to work to create highly efficient and responsive operations.

Modern architectures can bring together data from power drives, smart instruments and process control systems into cloud, on-premises or hybrid solutions. Historical data and analytics can then bring important context to this data, giving staff actionable, easy-to-understand insights into how operations are performing and where issues are occurring now and over time.

By using advanced capabilities like machine-learning, staff can get a glimpse into where operations and device health are likely to trend in the future. For example, asset performance management (APM) tools with predictive maintenance functions can help maintenance teams identify impending equipment failures. Technicians can then schedule the necessary repairs to be completed during planned maintenance downtime.

Connected workers. Giving employees convenient access to unit processes, production information and support resources is key to helping them work efficiently. It can also help offset challenges created by the ongoing skills shortage.

Remote access allows H2 producers to monitor their operations from a central location. When analytics from multiple production sites are tied together at the enterprise level, producers can compare performance across those sites to identify lagging performers and opportunities for improvement. 

Augmented reality (AR) technology can also help plant staffparticularly new, less-experienced workersimprove performance. With virtual training, operators can learn their jobs in a safe AR environment without disrupting production. By accessing digital repair instructions or remote support personnel in an AR environment, maintenance teams can more quickly troubleshoot and resolve equipment issues. 

Another way to improve how maintenance teams work is with a cloud-based computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Such a system can provide technicians fast access to the data they need so they can focus on critical maintenance demands and spend less time on administrative tasks.

Improved risk management. In addition to helping optimize H2 production operations, remote access can help enhance safety. An integrated power and control system can give staff access to information from any operator interface or even their smartphone. This can help staff keep a safe distance from the potentially hazardous conditions created by power systems. 

Scalable safety instrumented systems (SISs) allow producers to configure multiple safety functions with different architectures in one system. This can help them apply the specific layer of protection to meet their unique safety and availability requirements.  

Connected operations can also be an avenue for powerful cybersecurity measures. Threat-detection software, for example, can monitor a H2 plant’s network traffic at its deepest levels to find potentially dangerous anomalous activity.

A defined way forward. For many companies, uncertainty may be clouding the path ahead in green and blue H2. However, by using modern technologies and techniques that have already been proven in other process industriesand are being used in a growing number of low-carbon H2 plantsproducers can bring confidence and intention to their strategy.H2T


RICK NG has more than 25 yr of experience as Global Market Development Manager, Technical Advisor and Project Manager in the oil and gas and chemical industries with Sasol, Chevron and ExxonMobil before joining Rockwell Automation in 2021. He now serves as the Global Market Development Manager responsible for industry strategy and marketing in the chemical and oil and gas industries. Dr. Ng’s role includes developing market strategy to capture market share and business growth in these industries. He earned a BS degree at the University of Houston, and an MS degree and PhD at the California Institute of Technology, all in chemical engineering.

CORY MARCON is a 2012 graduate of McGill University with a decade of experience in all forms of energy, from solar and wind to gas. His role at Endress+Hauser as an Industry Manager is to analyze markets, such as the emerging energy transition, and help the company steer towards developing solutions and products to enable the next generation of applications.