Hello hydrogen! How Encirc is embracing low-carbon gases

November 2023
Fiacre O’Donnell.

Encirc Sustainability Director Fiacre O’Donnell recently featured in The Manufacturer discussing the sustainable potential of low-carbon gases for UK manufacturing and explaining how Encirc is leading the industry in scaling up hydrogen as a viable resource.

Here, he takes a look at the advantages that low-carbon gases could have for manufacturing and how we’re working with it now.

The transition to green energy poses specific challenges for the manufacturing industry, chiefly finding viable alternatives to natural gas to fuel the large-scale furnaces used in the production of glass, as well as a host of other materials. Long investment cycles and furnace lifecycles complicate things even further, putting the emphasis on finding an answer fast, but also finding the right one, as an imperfect solution will likely be a costly one.

It’s in this context that we and a number of manufacturers have begun to assess the potential of hydrogen and electricity as a solution for the furnace.

Northern Powerhouse

The North West of England is leading the charge on low-carbon hydrogen, in particular scaling up its production and application for use in heavy industry, and that includes our site in Cheshire. Turning the advantages of hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe that produces just water when burned – into a viable long-term fuel will take a concerted effort from businesses, legislators, researchers, and consumers.

HyNet, the UK’s leading industrial decarbonisation project, is evidence of just that happening across the North West. The project is building the infrastructure to produce, transport and store low-carbon hydrogen across the region with private and public sector investment. On the industry side, businesses are driving demand for the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure, and HyNet is evidence of this demand being met readily and affordably.

As well as the businesses and local authorities already working with hydrogen, there are many more watching from the wings who see HyNet as a test case, ready to buy into a success story. The UK government is supporting and preparing for hydrogen hitting the mainstream by putting in place the regulatory framework that businesses need to demonstrate the positive impact of low-carbon hydrogen. This is a keystone in the transition, because it builds the motive as well as the opportunity for adoption.

In practice

For Encirc and the glass industry in particular, the challenge is even greater. The glass industry as a whole produces up to 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year, of which a great deal comes from gas-powered furnaces. Hydrogen has the potential to transform the sector’s sustainability credentials along with electricity, oxy fuels and an increase in cullet (recycled glass).

At our Derrylin site in Northern Ireland, we’re working a completely different type of low-carbon gas, biomethane. Together with a number of key partners, we’re working to scale up biomethane production across Northern Ireland.

Here and now

As industry, it’s time to reframe our thinking and move away from considering alternative fuels as something for the future. Manufacturing lobby group Make UK recently highlighted energy costs as the biggest threat to the survival of UK manufacturers, and that means now.

Low-carbon gases offer real sustainable potential for manufacturing, an industry that must evolve quickly to meaningfully decarbonise. We’ve already made incredible progress, but the journey has just begun.

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