Part 3: Roundtable Q&A: The Roles of Hydrogen and Ammonia as Less Carbon-Intensive Fuel Sources

Published on: 
Turbomachinery Magazine, September/October 2023, Volume 64, Issue 5

In Part 3 of our roundtable Q&A on the state of hydrogen in the turbomachinery industry, experts and OEMs discuss how different types of turbomachinery are affected by the integration of hydrogen and the role of ammonia.

In the third and final part of our roundtable Q&A on the state of hydrogen in the turbomachinery industry, experts and OEMs talk about how, from a technical standpoint, different types of turbomachinery benefit or become challenged by the integration of hydrogen. And Mark Axford, founder of Axford Turbine Consultants, weighs in on the role ammonia can or does play in the incorporation of less carbon-intensive fuel sources.


Mark Axford
Axford Turbine Consultants

Klaus Brun
Global Director of R&D
Ebara-Elliott Energy Company

Alex Habeder
Head of Business Strategy
Sustainable Energy Systems
Siemens Energy

Andreas Kramer
Senior Manager Business Development
MAN Energy Solutions

Daniel Patrick
Market Manager Hydrogen
Atlas Copco Gas and Process


MARK AXFORD: The turbomachinery types that are affected by the hydrogen discussion are pipeline compressors and combustion gas turbines. There is no benefit provided to these turbomachines by integrating hydrogen, but there are certainly challenges.

For centrifugal compressors, the molecular weight of the gas being compressed is an essential design criterion for each impeller. Injecting more than a few percent of hydrogen (by volume) into the existing network of interstate pipelines would require replacement rotors for thousands of centrifugal compressors. Interstate pipelines are regulated by FERC, and the additional costs for the rotor rework would have to be passed along to customers.

For gas turbines, most existing makes and models could be operated with a 5-10% hydrogen fuel blend (by volume) without significant modification. But higher percentages create challenges, i.e., flame temperature and NOx emissions. Hydrogen burns at a hotter flame temperature and has a longer flame shape. Plus, more NOx will be produced for the same power output. This can be mitigated by redesigning the gas turbine combustor and/or spending more on the ammonia catalyst system installed on the gas turbine exhaust.


KLAUS BRUN: The two primary types of turbomachines that are affected by a conversion to a hydrogen economy are compressors and gas turbines—compressors, since they are used to gather and transport gas in a pipeline; gas turbines, since they are used to convert energy carrying gas into mechanical energy and electricity via a generator. Gas turbines have been utilized for the combustion of natural gas for many years, and although there are some challenges to maintain other criteria pollutants (such as NOx) low when burning hydrogen, the technology challenges to convert gas turbines to hydrogen operation are manageable. Similarly, compression of hydrogen has been demonstrated in refineries and other petrochemical applications for many years. However, for large-scale transport of hydrogen, different types of compressors will be required. Hydrogen is the lightest of all gasses, and to effectively compress hydrogen to the pressure ratios needed for transport and storage requires very high-speed turbomachines with impellers that operate at speeds well above that of conventional compressors. This technology is currently being developed but is not yet commercially available.

ALEX HABEDER: The application of hydrogen compression is not a novel concept. There are currently hundreds of centrifugal and positive displacement machines operating in this field, processing either "pure" hydrogen or a blend of gases with significant hydrogen content. Both compressor types can handle a broad range of application sce­narios, with the choice of technology largely coming down to eco­nomic tradeoffs and the facility’s specific requirements, includ­ing required flow rates, pressure ratios, foot­print limitations, use of dry or wet sealing, etc. Minor modifications usually suffice when the process gas contains smaller quantities of hydrogen; however, as this percentage increases, we must pay particular attention to factors such as power consumption, material compatibility, gas leakage, and operational flexibility.

For example:

  • Compressing hydrogen requires 2.5 - 3 times the compression power needed for an equivalent volume of natural gas.
  • Hydrogen can induce phenomena like hydrogen embrittlement in certain metals, potentially leading to premature failure of compressor components.
  • Hydrogen molecules are smaller than natural gas molecules, increasing their propensity to leak through seals and gaskets.
  • Green energy sources generate fluctuating loads and necessitate operational flexibility. Products should have the capability to operate over a more extensive flow range. There's an opportunity to optimize a hybrid solution comprising both centrifugal and positive displacement machines.

ANDREAS KRAMER: Different types of turbomachinery indeed have their advantages and challenges when it comes to integrating hydrogen. For example, when dealing with large effective volume flows, reciprocating compressors would become excessively large and costly. This is where process gas screw compressors, centrifugal inline compressors, and integrally geared compressors come into play. They can be used upstream of reciprocating compressors to reduce the effective volume flow. In cases requiring further compression, reciprocating compressors can be installed downstream, particularly for extremely high-pressure ratios and for pressure requirements beyond 250 bar. In such cases, centrifugal and integrally geared compressors face the challenge of achieving the necessary polytropic head with an acceptable number of stages. For moderate pressure ratios and below 250 bar, centrifugal inline compressors and integrally geared compressors may be the better solution, depending on the specified process data. For compression from low-pressure electrolysis, e.g., atmospheric, oil-free process gas screw compressors can achieve the required pressure ratio at volume flows not suitable for reciprocating compressors. Additionally, there have been advancements in gas turbines specifically designed for hydrogen, and further developments have been announced for use of green ammonia as fuel.

DANIEL PATRICK: Hydrogen is a notoriously difficult molecule for turbomachinery due to its low molecular weight. Turbomachinery designed for hydrogen applications requires high speeds and high stage counts to achieve most pressure ratios. This challenge can sometimes make turbomachinery less appealing for hydrogen when compared to other compression technology like positive displacement, especially for lower flow, high-head applications. However, turbomachinery lends itself well to certain hydrogen applications. For example, the cryogenic temperatures of liquid hydrogen applications result in increased gas density, making it favorable for centrifugal technology. This makes applications such as liquid hydrogen boil-off gas a good fit for integrally geared centrifugal compressors. Hydrogen liquefaction is another area where turbomachinery can shine. Cryogenic hydrogen turboexpanders play a crucial role in providing the necessary refrigeration duty to achieve liquid hydrogen temperatures.


AXFORD: Hydrogen is difficult to transport. Unlike natural gas, which can be liquefied and transported globally by ship, it is not economically feasible to liquefy hydrogen for bulk transport. An idea to address this problem is to manufacture green hydrogen and then convert it to ammonia by combining hydrogen and nitrogen. This requires additional capital investment to separate nitrogen from air to manufacture green ammonia. It is feasible to transport ammonia, and upon arrival at a power station, convert the ammonia to hydrogen, which can then be utilized as a turbine fuel.

If you have excess electricity from wind and solar during peak hours, and you utilize this energy to make green ammonia, why not just stop there and use the subsidized green ammonia as fertilizer? Otherwise, an additional manufacturing step is needed to convert the green ammonia back into hydrogen. Each of these “conversion” processes requires capital investment and machinery that uses energy, thus creating additional cost and inefficiency all to address the hydrogen transportation problem.

Let’s not forget that natural gas is a “less carbon-intensive fuel source” when compared to coal. It is likely less expensive to add carbon capture to natural gas combined-cycle plants than to pay for the extra infrastructure associated with hydrogen. To that point, hydrogen technology must compete not only with batteries but also with carbon capture.

Click here to read Part 1: Roundtable Q&A: The State of Hydrogen in the Turbomachinery Industry.

Click here to read Part 2: Roundtable Q&A: Obstacles Preventing Large-scale Implementation of Hydrogen