Emerson, Austin, Texas
In the last
few years, sustainability initiatives have started a dramatic shift from hydrocarbon
to hydrogen (H2) production. While these initiatives have put
pressure on hydrocarbon processing plants, the shift to H2 has, for
many, been a natural transition. A vast amount of infrastructure and knowledge is
already in place for producers to shift to H2 as a more sustainable alternative.
However, manufacturers making this
shift face two major challenges. First, with companies making 100% net-zero
commitments within the next decade or two, the timeline to build a new plant or
to modernize an existing one is highly compressed. Additionally, once the plant
is operational, H2 producers are being asked to rapidly increase
production, while still improving the manufacturing process to reduce emissions
and energy use (FIG. 1).
The solution to these challenges
is modern automation technology. With next-generation automation systems and
industrial software, H2 manufacturers can reduce their time to startup,
increase production, improve efficiency and help the world achieve its collective
Capturing value with modern control. Large-scale H2 plants
are complex, with a wide array of equipment and complicated processes, each
needing constant visibility and attention. This complexity is compounded by the
fact that many organizations are facing a shortage of experienced operations personnel.
distributed control system (DCS) that is connected with homogeneous smart
devices and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies provides assistance by
bringing complex, variable data into one place—thus increasing operator
efficiency. Furthermore, this technology helps organizations standardize
operations across a fleet of facilities, enabling personnel to easily move between
locations without needing to retrain.
Additionally, a high-performing
DCS reduces project integration time and cost by combining user-friendly
integration tools with a framework for standardized equipment data models and
description languages. A best-in-class DCS also decreases downtime and
maintenance troubleshooting because both machine and process control systems become
Some automation suppliers have even
developed compact standalone controllers that provide smarter control for skid
units and applications, such as polymer electrolyte membrane and alkaline
electrolyzers. These units provide the full benefits of control while operating
in standalone mode, and they can be natively integrated into a full control
system at any time as the plant scales.
Extending the value of the DCS with advanced
process control (APC). The complexity of H2 operations increases if producers are
simultaneously performing carbon capture steps to reduce emissions from their manufacturing
processes. Under these conditions, it is difficult to accurately predict
process failures, particularly if different operators make manual adjustments.
To remove the variability and
guesswork of predicting process failures, many H2 producers embed APC
into their control systems. APC applies software logic to help operations teams
take full advantage of today’s process control capabilities.
Tools like loop monitoring,
adaptive tuning, quality prediction, constrained optimization and statistical
modeling provide improved predictive control. Operators using these and other APC
tools are no longer responsible for controlling every element of the process;
instead, they are freed to act more as process managers, intervening only when
APC empowers operations teams to
run their H2 processes with more consistency and less firefighting.
Using APC, processes begin operating within much narrower bands, making them
far more predictable. These same benefits also deliver improved reliability, as
equipment is no longer subject to the same swings that come in a less tightly
controlled environment, so assets experience less wear and tear.
because the process stages and thresholds are built into software logic, teams
can often safely run their processes much closer to constraint limits, thereby increasing
efficiency and profitability across the operation. These benefits can be extended
to more than just a single-unit operation. Once a plant with multiple-unit
operations has optimized each loop to perform at its best, the plant’s personnel
can optimize all loops together into an overarching APC strategy that will synchronize
Improving uptime and operational outcomes with
asset monitoring software. Another technology that enables more efficient and sustainable H2
production is intelligent sensing devices. Smart wireless sensors provide data,
which, in some cases, is analyzed using artificial intelligence (AI) and
machine-learning, making it easier than ever for key personnel to be notified
when something needs attention. This awareness translates directly into savings
in the H2 industry, where essential equipment is expensive and
complex. Fixing an asset that has run to failure typically costs 50% more than the
preemptive repairs made possible with the continuous visibility provided by
intelligent sensing devices.
Operations and maintenance teams
have taken note of the benefits from this type of predictive analytics and are
deploying vast numbers of sensors to capture these savings. Moreover, sustainability
and reliability are linked. Unreliable equipment typically uses more energy and
generates more emissions. By leveraging asset monitoring technologies to ensure
that equipment always runs at its best, manufacturers can further increase the
availability of plant assets as well as the sustainability and the production of
Driving optimization through simulation. Two major risks facing greenfield
and brownfield H2 projects are cost overruns and schedule delays. The
more unknowns that exist in project design, the more likely it is that the
plant will not start up on time due to late-stage changes. Today’s
forward-thinking project teams are circumventing these problems by designing simulation
technology into the earliest stages of a project.
and digital twin technologies, project teams can create digital replicas of the
entire H2 plant and its individual processes. With these simulated
environments, teams can test equipment to ensure that it meets specifications, check
processes to identify flaws and bottlenecks, and develop new advanced control
strategies—all in a safe environment and long before equipment arrives onsite. The
operations team can better fine-tune processes and optimize control strategies,
all before “day one” of the physical startup (FIG. 2).
Because digital twin systems are
replicas of the entire plant, including the automation system, they can also be
used as training tools in parallel with project implementation. Operators can
train on new systems as they are being built, experiencing the same scenarios
they will see in live operation. As they practice, the responsive controls of
digital twin systems show operators exactly how their actions cascade across
the plant. This helps operators to better understand the repercussions of every
action and prepares them to make the best decisions from the earliest days of
operation. Training can typically begin well before equipment is even onsite,
often shaving weeks or months off the startup time vs. traditional training
When projects are complete, those
same digital twin technologies continue to deliver value. The best processes
are the ones that continue to evolve, adopting new strategies and technologies
across the lifecycle to optimize operations. A well-maintained digital twin
mirrors the plant as it changes across the lifecycle, providing operations with
a sandbox environment to test operational changes. Knowing that they have a
safe environment in which to test, operators are free to innovate new
strategies, which helps to drive the best possible performance throughout the
lifecycle of the plant.
Driving a more holistic automation architecture. To ensure that all the critical
components of H2 production work together, operations teams need
cross-domain visibility. However, traditional automation architectures often trap
information from different domains in silos, limiting plant efficiency.
providers are changing this paradigm by developing holistic industrial
architectures that integrate operational domains. These holistic architectures
are centered around a next-generation, software-defined control system that
uses modern technologies to contextualize and democratize data, driving
insights from the field through the edge and to the cloud (FIG. 3).
Not all the elements to build this
boundless automation architecture are available today. However, some of the foundational
elements are, and innovative H2 producers are already putting key
industrial software solutions in place to prepare for the inevitable future of a
more holistic automation architecture.
Achieving net-zero targets. Scaling H2 production
to meet aggressive sustainability targets is a daunting task. Fortunately, with
modern automation technology, H2 producers can reduce startup time,
increase production, improve efficiency and help the world achieve critical net-zero
NATHAN PETTUS is the President of
Emerson’s Process Systems and Solutions business. He oversees a business that
helps some of the world’s leading companies—in a wide variety of industries—leverage
automation software and technologies to optimize operations, protect personnel
and reach sustainability targets. Pettus has been with Emerson since 1998, when
he began as a software engineer. He earned a Bch degree in mechanical engineering
from Tennessee Technological University, an MS degree in controls engineering
from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA degree from the McCombs
School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.