Hydrogen breakthrough at Unilever factory

Consumer products giant Unilever has powered a Liverpool city region manufacturing plant using 100% hydrogen for the first time as part of the HyNet project. Tony McDonough reports

Unilever
Factory built by William Hesketh Lever in Port Sunlight now owned by Unilever. Picture by Tony McDonough

 

A manufacturing plant at the giant Unilever complex at Port Sunlight in Wirral has been operated using 100% hydrogen for the first time.

Carried out as part of the North West-wide HyNet hydrogen project, the personal care and home care products production line at the historic Unilever factory switched to hydrogen in what it believed to be the first large-scale demonstration of its kind.

As part of the trial, both 100% hydrogen, and a blend of natural gas and hydrogen is being used to fire a boiler which provides steam for the production process to make well known products such as TRESemme and Persil.

Led by Progressive Energy, the demonstration follows a similar HyNet pilot at the Pilkington glassmaking facility in St Helens. HyNet says it wants to persuade manufacturers across the region to switch to hydrogen permanently over the next few years.

HyNet’s plan is to produce hydrogen using natural gas at a £1bn facility at the Essar Oil UK oil refinery at Stanlow on the banks of the Mersey. Natural gas is, of course, a fossil fuel which produces significant volumes of carbon. HyNet plans to capture and store this carbon in caverns under the sea in Liverpool Bay.

This is known as ‘blue hydrogen’. However, the success of large scale carbon capture and storage across the world is patchy and results have been disappointing and expensive. HyNet insists it will get the technology and the process right.

A cleaner way of producing hydrogen is via a process called electrolysis. This uses emissions-free energy from wind or solar power. This is called ‘green hydrogen’. HyNet says it does want to use green hydrogen in the future but says the process is not yet available at scale.

READ MORE: Can hydrogen deliver net zero?

In November last year LBN revealed that a number of large manufacturers in the North West had signed up to become part of the HyNet network. They include carmaker Jaguar Land Rover which operates a large factory in Halewood.

A central part of the North West’s industrial heritage, Unilever’s Port Sunlight factory has been manufacturing household brands and products since 1888. This demonstration of hydrogen technology will provide critical evidence to enable decarbonisation of a range of industry sectors.

Bulk production of hydrogen in the North West is imminent with HyNet, backed by the Government, aiming to be up and running in the North West by the mid-2020s. Vertex Hydrogen, a HyNet consortium partner, will supply low carbon hydrogen into the UK’s first 100% hydrogen pipeline network, being developed by Cadent, another HyNet partner.  

Unilever
The HyNet hydrogen trial gets under way at Unilever in Port Sunlight
HyNet project map
HyNet plans to deliver hydrogen across the North West

 

As part of its climate action commitments, Unilever has set the target of achieving zero emissions from their operations by 2030, increasing use of renewable energies including wind and solar. It also wants to introduce capability to generate renewable energy on-site.

It is exploring and supporting the innovation of new renewable heating technologies – including hydrogen – and building an understanding of how these could be integrated into their global operations. 

Madeleine McLeod, factory director Port Sunlight, said, “In our operations, we’ve already reduced our emissions by 64% since 2015, and now we’re working towards our commitment to have zero emissions by 2030.

“To achieve this, we’re looking at new technologies, which is why we’re excited to be working with Progressive Energy to trial the use of hydrogen at an industrial scale. The results will help us to better understand the role hydrogen could play in decarbonising our factory sites.”

David Parkin, director of Progressive Energy and project director of HyNet North West, added: “HyNet is fully focused on providing a route for industry to decarbonise. This demonstration shows how close we are to hydrogen becoming a reality.

“HyNet will not only substantially reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions entering our atmosphere but will kick-start a low carbon hydrogen economy across the North West and North East Wales.”

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