An Italian consortium is set to be awarded a landmark contract to carry out engineering studies on what is thought will be the world’s first offshore pipeline designed to carry green hydrogen between two countries.

The $440 million, 159-kilometre pipeline was originally designed to carry only natural gas between the Gela industrial complex in southern Sicily and Malta.

However, Malta's state-owned Melita TransGas (MTG), the pipeline proponent, now wants the link to be able to transport 100% green hydrogen, which the Maltese government plans to use initially for power generation.

Malta's major 205-megawatt Delimara power plant currently runs on imported natural gas, but could be upgraded to handle hydrogen feedstock.

Malta has been connected to the European electricity grid since 2015, through a submarine cable linked to Sicily, Italy.

Two years later, the archipelago — which includes Gozo and Comino islands — introduced natural gas as the main fuel for electricity generation via a floating storage and regasification unit. The region previously relied on heavy fuel oil and gasoil for its energy.

Valetta then decided to look at importing gas from Sicily via the 159-kilometre MTG pipeline, with the results of a recently commissioned feasibility study confirming this is possible.

It is understood a consortium of Techfem and SPS, both based in Fano, Italy, have been selected to carry out a major update of an earlier front-end engineering and design work the pair undertook on the pipeline when it was only to have transported natural gas.

The two contractors will focus on upgrading the specifications of the Sicily-Malta line so it can handle 100% natural gas when it comes online and, over time, can transport increasing volumes of green hydrogen until that feedstock is all it carries.

The Techfem-SPS consortium — competing against Peritus Engineering and Tecnoconsult — was selected as the preferred FEED contractor by MTG on Friday, according to documentation on the Maltese government website.

FEED work is set to be wrapped up next year and its findings will be assimilated into other reports — including a hydrogen infrastructure study — so that, by the end of 2022, MTG can decide whether such a pipeline is technically and commercially viable.

Part of the updated FEED scope is to establish the cost and feasibility of green hydrogen production in Sicily and hydrogen storage on the island.

Hydrogen could be sourced from wind, solar, a mix of both or from the wider European energy grid, while there are plans to use a battery system to manage the intermittency of wind and solar power.

Hydrogen storage studies will focus on using existing salt caverns underground or what are known as liquid organic hydrogen carriers — fluids containing hydrogen that could be transported using existing infrastructure — provided these are proven at a commercial scale.

MTG expects the pipeline to be manufactured from carbon-manganese steel which should ensure a 35-year lifetime.

But the FEED work will further pin down the exact composition of materials needed to avoid issues such as hydrogen-induced embrittlement and cracking.

The cost of the natural gas-only pipeline came in at about €358 million ($415 million), according to documentation from MTG, which estimates that a further investment of €20 million will be required for it to handle hydrogen.

Publicly available filings indicate the original pipeline had a nominal diameter of 22 inches and was designed to transport 1.2 billion cubic metres per annum of natural gas.

Techfem-SPS has also been called on to find out whether any of the 21 objects mapped as being close to the proposed pipeline route between Sicily and Malta are unexploded bombs.

Italian consultancy Rina, meanwhile, was contracted this month to provide technical advisory services for repurposing the pipeline to carry hydrogen.

In June last year, Upstream reported that Techfem-SPS submitted a feasibility report to the Maltese government outlining the benefits of a hydrogen pipeline.

The original gas pipeline was designed to be operational in early 2026, and could still meet this deadline if a final investment decision is taken in 2023.

MTG was established in 2018 as a subsidiary company of Petromal which is fully owned by the government of Malta through Malta Government Investments and Malta Investment Management Company.

The two-year-old company reports directly to Valetta’s Ministry for Energy, Enterprise & Sustainable Development.

MTG is applying to the European Union to help finance the pipeline, which is a project of common interest.

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