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Technology Landscape: Key Players in Methane Pyrolysis

Runeel Daliah, Senior Analyst
May 3, 2021

Methane pyrolysis, also known as methane cracking or turquoise hydrogen, is the high-temperature breakdown of methane into hydrogen gas and carbon. It competes directly with blue hydrogen, hydrogen from steam methane reforming and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), for producing low-carbon hydrogen from natural gas. In methane pyrolysis, all the carbon content in the methane is captured in solid form rather than emitted as carbon dioxide.

Methane pyrolysis requires approximately half the amount of energy required by steam reforming to produce the same amount of hydrogen. Finally, the solid carbon byproduct can be sold onto the market as carbon black, offsetting the cost of hydrogen produced. Together, these factors make methane pyrolysis a promising technology option to produce low-carbon hydrogen.

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There are different variations of methane pyrolysis, and they can be categorized as thermal, plasma, and catalytic pyrolysis. Despite the variations, they all share common technical challenges; high process temperatures required for high conversion rates, hydrogen gas purity, and separation of solid carbon from the gas phase to avoid catalyst poisoning (if any) and reactor system blockings. 

To get a comprehensive overview of the technology landscape for methane pyrolysis and distribution of players, we analyzed key developers with historical patent activity, academic publications, early-stage funding, and ongoing projects. This information serves to define future trends and help identify opportunities for innovators seeking to engage with players in methane pyrolysis.

Technology Landscape Key players in methane pyrolysis-2

The Americas and EMEA are the regional leaders in methane pyrolysis 

This is no surprise, as methane pyrolysis is an early-stage and complex technology platform whose development is incentivized by the use of natural gas for low-carbon hydrogen. This requires a strong regional drive for decarbonization, an appetite for high-risk investments, and/or an abundant local supply of natural gas. The U.S. and Russia are the two leading countries in the space.

While Japan and South Korea have ambitious decarbonization goals, and Southeast Asia and Australia have an abundant supply of natural gas, no region in APAC has had the right conditions to foster the development of methane pyrolysis yet. However, we expect China to emerge as a key player.

Startups are becoming increasingly active in methane pyrolysis

Methane pyrolysis has largely been dominated by large corporations, but the past decade saw several startups founded to develop and deploy methane pyrolysis technologies that were originally developed at research institutions. Overall, there is no clear leader in methane pyrolysis yet – while Monolith Materials scaled its platform to the demonstration stage, the performance of its technology is unclear. Otherwise, both large corporations and startups are at a similar stage of technology development with their platforms. 

The academic space is active but highly fragmented 

Research institutions vastly outnumber corporations and startups in methane pyrolysis. Only two, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), stand out from the crowd by scaling their technology to pilot installations. Other institutions active in methane pyrolysis have not yet progressed past experimental units. A number of such institutions are based in China, and their technologies are likely to be absorbed by Chinese corporations once they are ready to scale.

Methane Pyrolysis Technology Landscape

  • Plasma: The most mature form of methane pyrolysis, it utilizes a plasma torch where methane gas pyrolyzes at temperatures between 1,000 °C (cold plasma) and 2,000 °C (hot plasma). Cold plasma typically leads to methane conversion of less than 50% with no catalysts, while hot plasma typically results in conversion above 90%. The Norwegian company Kværner (now Aker Solutions) deployed the first and only commercial-scale methane pyrolysis facility utilizing hot plasma technology in 1997, where the hydrogen produced was recirculated in the plasma torch. The facility was decommissioned in 2003 due to insufficient quality of carbon black product. Nowadays, Monolith Materials is the leading company. It utilizes hot plasma technology based on Kværner's process and launched its first demonstration facility in the U.S. in 2020, producing carbon black as the primary product. Gazprom is the only corporation now active in plasma technology for methane pyrolysis – its cold plasma technology is supported by a nickel catalyst to reach methane conversion efficiencies of 80%, but the technology is still at the laboratory scale.

  • Thermal: In thermal pyrolysis, methane dissociates into hydrogen and carbon at temperatures between 1,000 °C and 1,500 °C. Differentiation revolves around the type of reactor used in the process. BASF utilizes an electrically heated moving bed reactor where carbon granules flow counter to the gas phases and methane pyrolyzes directly on the granules at 1,400 °C. KIT passes methane through a liquid tin bubble column reactor at 1,200 °C, where the solid carbon formed floats on top of the liquid and can be separated through undisclosed means. TNO also uses a molten metal reactor operating above 1,000 °C and separates out the carbon black from the liquid metal using molten salt. Currently, all technology platforms in thermal pyrolysis are at the laboratory scale and are unlikely to reach a commercial scale before 2030.

  • Catalytic: In catalytic pyrolysis, methane breaks down into hydrogen and carbon over a metal catalyst, which is typically nickel- or iron-based, at temperatures of less than 1,000 °C. Currently, Hazer Group is the leading player in this space – the company uses a fluidized bed reactor with an iron ore catalyst, operating at 850 °C. It is currently at the pilot-scale, with no clear targets for commercialization. C-Zero is the newest entrant to the methane pyrolysis sector. While its technology remains unclear, it appears that the company uses a catalytic process but also molten salts to separate out the solid carbon.

Overall, the technology landscape for methane pyrolysis is fragmented between technologies, with no sure bets. While Monolith Materials appears to be at the near-commercial scale with its plasma technology, the lack of details surrounding its project as well as the poor commercial history of the Kværner process prevents us from calling plasma the clear winner in methane pyrolysis yet.

BASF and TNO are actively developing their thermal pyrolysis platforms, but have admitted that a commercial-scale facility is unlikely before 2030. As for the multiple startups active in the space, commercializing goals tend to be highly ambitious, and they have yet to secure the required partners or funding to scale their technologies.

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Given the early stage of methane pyrolysis and the range of technologies available, an economic evaluation of the process remains lacking. Academic literature and conversations with technology developers indicate that methane pyrolysis will be more expensive than blue hydrogen. However, advocates of the technology are quick to point out that selling the carbon byproduct onto the market will make it cheaper than blue hydrogen. Nonetheless, innovators should be cautious, as such an assumption can be highly treacherous. 

The global carbon black market today is estimated at 15 million tonnes per year. If all of this carbon black were to be supplied by methane pyrolysis, it would correspond to a hydrogen production of 6 million tonnes per year. This is equivalent to just 8% of the global hydrogen market. Therefore, deploying methane pyrolysis at a global scale will lead to a crash in the carbon black market and essentially make it worthless.

Assuming the technology successfully scales and the carbon black is not sold onto the market, the decision to build a methane pyrolysis facility or a blue hydrogen facility will largely depend on the handling of the carbon-based byproducts and its impact on the economics of hydrogen production. For methane pyrolysis to win, the cost of handling the solid carbon will have to be cheaper than the cost of compressing, transporting, and sequestering the CO2 emissions from a blue hydrogen facility. 

Those interested should monitor developments in methane pyrolysis but remain cognizant that, while it will carve out its share of the low-carbon hydrogen market, it is unlikely to completely expel blue hydrogen from the mix.

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