Illustration; Source: DNV
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Interview: Shaping up UK’s gas infrastructure to get it ready for hydrogen bonanza


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Illustration; Source: DNV

As forces at play on the global energy chessboard lay the groundwork to usher in a low-carbon and green energy future, the United Kingdom (UK) is among the ones that have come up with blueprints to spearhead the energy transition journey with emerging sources of supply such as hydrogen. Can this fuel of the future overcome the obstacles in its path to show it is the real deal in the fight against climate change?

Many believe that the era of fossil fuels should be behind us if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement goals and reach its net zero aspirations. As a result of this view, renewable energy is expected to take on the mantle of primary energy mix ingredient, throwing the economics of new oil and gas projects into question. However, fossil fuels are not easy to overthrow, as illustrated by the growing demand worldwide.

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Britain, like many other countries, is pursuing a balancing act to shore up different sources of supply and strengthen its energy security. This move stems from the UK’s belief that bankrolling more oil, gas, offshore wind, carbon capture, and hydrogen projects is the key to getting to net zero and beyond. Some of these projects, including the ones related to blending hydrogen into the gas network, are facing headwinds, which need to be sorted out to ensure Britain’s energy mix will be fit for the future, bringing hydrogen-ready gas infrastructure to life.

In line with the expectations being placed on hydrogen’s shoulders, the British government has revealed plans for the blending of hydrogen into its gas distribution networks at a 20% concentration. Even though this feat could be achieved as early as 2025, policymakers need to set the right incentives and regulations in place to ensure that aims to reach 100% hydrogen pipelines can also be implemented to enrich the energy arsenal.

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Tackling this requires serious contemplation on the merits of adopting existing gas infrastructure for hydrogen use in certain cases and building new one where repurposing may not work or there are no existing facilities that can be converted. With hydrogen having the ability to leak through almost anything, suitable solutions for the use of this fuel in existing systems are needed, as the current decarbonization plans show that hydrogen will likely be a part of the global gas networks.

Therefore, gas distributors should perceive innovation as a critical tool to ensuring the safe and reliable flow of gas and a prerequisite to operating a network that remains fit for the future, according to Faris Churcher, Business Lead – Gas & Energy Transition at Oxford Flow, the UK-headquartered valve solution and flow control equipment specialist, which recently took matters into its own hands to not only verify the efficacy of its IM-S solution but also prove the tool was ready for use with hydrogen.

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With a Master of Engineering (MEng) degree with a Diploma in Industrial Studies in Automotive Engineering from Loughborough University, Churcher started his career as a Design Engineer at Ricardo in July 2014.

Faris Churcher,
Oxford Flow’s Business Lead –
Gas & Energy Transition;
Source: Oxford-Flow

After joining Oxford Flow in July 2016, Churcher took on different roles until his most recent position as Business Lead – Gas & Energy Transition, which he has been in since December 2022.

During our interview, Churcher, who played a significant role, alongside Oxford Flow’s in-house engineering team, in designing, developing, and qualifying the firm’s IM series gas regulators, points out that the lack of global industry standards for hydrogen infrastructure and equipment poses a threat, as it leaves the industry operating in a vacuum without any agreed safety standards.

He is convinced that hydrogen blending in UK pipelines is “a question of when, not if,” thus, the time to set such standards is now to prepare the UK’s gas infrastructure for a hydrogen future.

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  1. OE: The UK has set ambitious net zero and hydrogen plans. Do you believe these are achievable? If so, what does Britain need to do to tackle hydrogen blending bottlenecks and scale up these decarbonization and clean energy projects?

Faris Churcher: The targets are indeed ambitious, but they are achievable if investment and proper planning match the intent. It is very encouraging that gas networks are performing extensive research into the repurposing of natural gas pipelines for up to 100% hydrogen, such as LTS Futures and H100 by SGN.

The government’s recent announcement to assign a further £21 million for seven green hydrogen projects across the UK shows that this investment is on its way. The UK needs to continue the investment, R&D, and knowledge sharing with other nations that have started hydrogen blending trials, such as the Netherlands with their Lochem village blending trial.

The public perception of hydrogen also needs to be addressed. There has been a lot of research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), DNV, and UK gas networks showing that hydrogen as a fuel is no more dangerous than natural gas when treated properly on an already safe and well-established infrastructure like we have here in the UK.

However, the results of this research have not yet permeated through to many members of the public, which will slow down adoption – as shown with the scrapped plans for a proposed Hydrogen Village trial in Whitby.

  • OE: Is the era of ‘hydrogen-ready’ LNG and gas infrastructure really upon us? Do you foresee further repurposing of existing facilities in the near term?

Faris Churcher: The short answer is yes – because we have no other choice. Recent research from DNV shows that the UK is already behind on its near-term and long-term climate goals of reducing emissions of CO2 and greenhouse gases. Thankfully, research into repurposing pipelines is happening all over the world, including SGN’s LTS Futures project, which Oxford Flow is providing equipment for.

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The ideal solution would be building brand new hydrogen-ready infrastructure, and have it completed very quickly and cost-effectively, using nothing but the best equipment. However, this is not an ideal world, and the investment needed to replace all the UK’s natural gas pipelines and equipment with brand new assets would be eye-watering, so we need to look to re-use and repurpose where possible, focussing on the areas that have the highest probability of hydrogen-related failures.

  • OE: Which type of gas and other infrastructure is best suited to be adopted for hydrogen use by the end of the decade? When gas distributors embark on a mission to make their network of assets fit for the future, will this be an expensive endeavor and what can the UK do to make such upgrades feasible from the perspective of safety?

Faris Churcher: The UK is one of only a handful of nations that has operated gas infrastructure for over 100 years. The knowledge and expertise built up in that time means the UK has some of the safest gas infrastructure in the world. So, we are ideally placed to couple industry knowledge with innovative products and services to bring the best technology to the fore and power the energy transition.

In the 100 years of UK gas infrastructure, the fuel mix has gone through many changes, from hydrogen-rich town gas to LNG imports and North Sea gas – all of which have their own unique challenges that the industry has overcome safely and effectively. As a result, the understanding and knowledge of pipeline technology and how that infrastructure could cope with up to 100% hydrogen is already high.

However, theory will only take us so far. To convert this into reality, we must test, test, test. This is not free and requires new and innovative thinking and as such, there has never been a better time for the government to encourage young science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students to forge a career in energy.

As the energy mix changes, we should encourage young minds to come forward and help shape that change. Coupled with the experience of the sector today and the past, this could create a vital mix of thinking to forge the path.

  • OE: As current global industry standards for hydrogen infrastructure and equipment are not up to par, can the supply chain respond to the market demand in light of this, and should this be tackled before we see more hydrogen-ready projects? What needs to be done to fix the lack of proper safety directions and standards in the UK and globally?

Faris Churcher: As of right now, there is a lack of enforced standards for equipment being used with hydrogen, so it is imperative that manufacturers of equipment in the natural gas sector are guided by government or industry standards to ensure their equipment is suitable for hydrogen use.

The industry standards for hydrogen – especially for hydrogen infrastructure and pipelines – are still being written both here, in the UK, and around the world. As a result, there are actually very few qualified products for gas pipelines that can safely be used for hydrogen.

However, the lack of existing technology should not be a barrier to governments proposing new hydrogen projects. Likewise, the lack of hydrogen projects, standards, and investment should not stop technology developers from designing hydrogen-ready solutions that can support the transition from traditional fuels to up to 100% hydrogen. This means that it’s no one ‘group’s’ role to encourage this shift, but each participant can influence the willingness to propose new hydrogen infrastructure.

An alternative – and ideal – solution is a joined-up approach, where government-funded hydrogen projects partner with innovative manufacturers to create the equipment required in tandem. This will drive better results for hydrogen projects while supporting the supply chain to develop the projects required to support a shift away from fossil fuels. 

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  • OE: Do you believe that hydrogen will play an important part in the UK’s decarbonization game? Can Britain reach its hydrogen blending goals and future-proof its gas infrastructure if it puts in place the right incentives and policy standards to avoid hydrogen leaks? What should such standards entail to ensure the preparedness of market offerings to withstand the use of hydrogen with no compromise on safety?

Faris Churcher: It is well known that in most future energy scenarios, hydrogen features heavily. It is by no means a silver bullet to net zero, but part of an arsenal of decarbonization technology that must be employed if the UK is to achieve net zero by 2050. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), renewable energy generation such as tidal, wind, and solar, and hydrogen in its many forms of production all have an important part to play.

The UK government must be ambitious in its targets to introduce hydrogen, but it also needs to support those who push the industry forward. Effective research and development are not easy or cheap, so the right incentives for innovative manufacturers, as well as the larger, more established players, must be in place to encourage competitive innovation to meet the country’s energy needs safely and effectively.

Safety has always been paramount in gas infrastructure and as a result, the UK has one of the safest networks of gas pipelines in the world. Maintaining that level of safety is critical and we must not lose focus on that as hydrogen becomes more widely adopted.

While those standards are being created and there is an absence of accreditations, looking to those who have proven their hydrogen readiness with 3rd party verification and testing is the most likely way to ensure the continued safe operation of gas infrastructure, as is hastening the speed at which broader industry standards and regulations are developed and enforced.

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  • OE: Oxford Flow recently took matters into its own hands to validate the efficacy of its IM-S solution, and back up its claim that the tool is hydrogen-ready. Since the study shows that no absorption, expansion, or damage was detected when the solution was tested with not only a helium blend but also a hydrogen one, can you tell us what this breakthrough means for the future of hydrogen blending and the further development of the hydrogen sector in Britain?

Faris Churcher: The testing we undertook at Oxford Flow was the first of its kind for a gas regulator. In lieu of an existing standard, we set about determining the scenarios and requirements that may be needed. Testing included leak tightness and elastomer suitability with 100% helium and a hydrogen blend.

These were age and stress tested, to simulate use over time and the end result was verification that our gas regulator can be used with up to 100% hydrogen over a prolonged period of time, giving us the confidence that existing systems with this equipment already installed are already hydrogen ready. The benefit of this type of research or testing is that it verifies to us what we already know. When we set out to improve valves and gas regulators, we did so with the energy transition at the front of our minds.

We developed our regulators using materials that could be used with both natural gas and hydrogen and by engineering our solutions with less moving parts, have eliminated common leak points and reduced the number of opportunities for leaks. Gas network operators already have access to products and equipment that could secure our infrastructure for decades to come.

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  • OE: Is Oxford Flow currently working on any similar or other projects that have the potential to lend a helping hand in propelling the energy transition forward not just in the UK but also globally?

Faris Churcher: Oxford Flow was founded on an ambition to push the boundaries of what can be done, and it’s our ambition to make the energy transition simple and seamless. We are already working with SGN on a number of hydrogen projects, including its H100 Green Hydrogen to Homes project and the LTS Futures project.

Furthermore, we’re working with oil and gas majors investigating the role of blue hydrogen in our energy mix. It is our hope that the findings from these projects will play a key role in accelerating the energy transition and prove to the wider industry and world governments that H2 readiness is already here.

  • OE: Would you like to share anything else about the offshore energy industry and potential innovations aimed at complying with the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD) and the net zero agenda?

Faris Churcher: The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) – previously the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) – has put together a detailed agenda for net zero by 2050. Many of the net zero guidelines proposed feature emissions reduction, infrastructure reuse, efficiency, and being tougher on standards.

By looking ahead, Oxford Flow has engineering products that tick these boxes, including our range of IM series gas regulators, IP-X flanged liquid regulators, and most importantly, our zero emission ES stemless valve.

Reducing emissions is non-negotiable if we’re to meet our targets, and ES, which has been designed to not only reduce but eliminate emissions, is currently in use on several downstream facilities in the U.S. and is due to be deployed on assets in the UK and the Middle East.

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