On the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, winding along the River Mersey, workers at Ineos's plant keep Britain stocked up with chlorine and caustic soda.
Hydrogen, a byproduct of more than 20 years of that production, is now moving into the spotlight due to its potential role in tackling climate change – the chemical giant's site in the industrial town of Runcorn, Cheshire, is set to benefit.
Ineos, led by billionaire founder Jim Ratcliffe who was born about 40 miles north east in Failsworth, is investing millions to upgrade the hydrogen produced on site so it can be used in fuel cells and small-scale power generation.
"We can see already that we will have a lot of demand for that hydrogen – including for applications that we didn't even think about," says Wouter Bleukx, manager of Ineos's new UK-based hydrogen business. "For example, third parties who supply generators for festivals."
Good it may be for the workers of Runcorn, the investment is only a small part of the more than €2bn [£1.7bn] Ineos pledged to invest in producing low-carbon hydrogen across Europe. The first plants are being built in Norway, Germany and Belgium .
If the Government is to meet its ambitions to turn hydrogen from a relatively niche industrial product into a key part of the low carbon energy mix, it will need to attract far more of Ineos' investment.
Welcoming the likes of David Solomon, boss of Goldman Sachs, to Bernard Looney, boss of BP, to a summit at London's Science Museum last week, Boris Johnson pledged to turn the UK into the "Qatar of hydrogen" – riffing on his previous vow for it to be the "Saudi Arabia of wind" as it shifts from fossil fuels to renewable power.
"I'm given to understand that there's $24 trillion [£20trn] represented in this room," he said. "So I want to say to each and every one of those dollars: you're very welcome in the UK." Laughter ensued.
But the UK faces growing competition for investors' cash – perhaps countries where sun and wind conditions make for cheaper electricity, or those that have simply moved more quickly. Politicians risk missing out in the global rush to ramp up hydrogen production.
"We place the UK as third in Europe, after Germany and the Netherlands," says Richard Howard, research director of Aurora Energy Research.
"The UK has a clear plan on hydrogen now, but only recently. It does have some specific incentives [for the market] – but my take would be that some of these plans are not as advanced as in some other European countries."
Excitement over hydrogen is nothing new but it seems more likely than ever to turn into reality, given the growing impetus to tackle climate change, with Governments worldwide plotting billions in investment.
The gas does not produce carbon dioxide when burned, making it an alluring prospect to replace fossil fuels in industries from steelmaking to aviation, though its uses will likely be limited to areas where electrification is too challenging, given its inefficiencies and expense.
Hydrogen needs to be extracted from other materials, such as splitting from natural gas or from water using electrolysis. For this to be low carbon, production from natural gas must be coupled with carbon capture – "blue hydrogen" – while production using electrolysis needs vast amounts of renewable electricity – "green hydrogen".
Still, ministers estimate it could supply 20-35pc of UK energy by 2050 and play an important role as a store of electricity from intermittent wind and solar power.
So far the UK is attracting a lot of interest in "blue hydrogen", with the largest pipeline of announced projects globally covering 2.4m metric tons per year. BP's planned 1GW project in Teesside is one example.
But "green hydrogen" – preferred by many environmentalists but more expensive – is lagging, despite advantages such as vast offshore wind resources.
How hydrogen output could expand in the coming decades, using carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS):
The Government is consulting on a subsidy mechanism to encourage both types of hydrogen production, but it will not be in place until 2023. Demand and other factors also play on investors' mind.
"The big hydrogen projects that are really getting off the ground, for example in the EU, Middle East or in Australia – they have dedicated, defined demand sources," says Brian Murphy, senior hydrogen analyst at S&P Global Platts Analytics.
"Japan's power industry will say, 'we really want clean ammonia, or we really want clean hydrogen'. I think you're not seeing that quite as much right now in the UK, but it could develop."
Ineos' Bluekx says the choice of Norway, Germany and Belgium for its first big hydrogen expansions was mainly down to specifics of each project, such as Norway's large hydropower resources and a partnership in Belgium. Governments also play a role, however.
"In Germany, first of all the amount of money available for hydrogen is huge," says Bluekx. The country has pledged about €9bn on green hydrogen production.
"Secondly, they are very much involved in the projects that we are doing, very closely interested, and they push us to go in certain directions.
"The UK Government is more, 'show us what you can do'. With the German government they push us. The involvement is different. I have the feeling that they believe more in it."
There's a long way to go before the UK meets even its own predicted demand for hydrogen, though ministers are also eyeing an export market which is likely to develop over the coming decades, according to the Government's recent hydrogen strategy.
Qatar supplies about 2pc of global oil and 4pc of global gas, much of it liquefied and piped into ships. Murphy, at S&P Global Platts, says the UK supplying about 3pc of global clean hydrogen in the long term is a "pretty reasonable" target.
Yet, again, the UK faces challenges. It may have some of the world's best offshore wind resources, but falls behind in solar. A mix of wind and solar is best for hydrogen, as electrolysers can run more of the time, and onshore wind is often cheaper than offshore. North Africa, Chile, Argentina and Australia all have a good mix of wind and solar.
"The problem with the idea of the UK as a hydrogen superpower is that our hydrogen is likely to be made from offshore wind and from nuclear," says Michael Liebreich, clean energy expert. "It's going to be more expensive."
How widely hydrogen is used will depend on costs reducing globally. "Blue hydrogen" currently costs about $1-2 per kg depending on gas prices, and "green hydrogen" about $3-$8 per kg, according to the International Energy Agency.
Bluekx says it's "very difficult" to know how quickly costs will come down, as so much depends on how much demand will drive scale and investment. The business case for hydrogen is currently poor, he says, but Ineos is investing nonetheless as "we believe so strongly" in its future.
"I think we need some companies to really start this journey," he adds.
Ineos is starting with hydrogen electrolyser projects of less than one gigawatt, working its way up gradually. Eventually it will want to develop a much bigger gigawatt project.
If ministers want that gigawatt project to be in the UK, they may have work to do.
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