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By Mary-Lou Considine 3 September 2018 7 min read

Solar energy is produced by nuclear fusion of hydrogen deep inside the Sun. Image: john.purvis/flickr, CC BY 2.0

IT'S the most abundant element in the universe and fuels the powerful fusion reaction that transforms matter into energy in the sun.

Yet, hydrogen – the smallest chemical element, with one proton and electron – has, until now, been sidelined in the world’s global energy debate. In a sense, hydrogen is hidden from plain sight. It doesn’t occur naturally on its own, but is bound to other elements, such as oxygen in water (H2O) – the largest pool of hydrogen on Earth – and in carbon-based compounds such as methane (CH4).

This means that commercial hydrogen needs to be synthesised, largely via a process called steam reforming, in which methane-rich natural gas is heated, causing hydrogen atoms to separate from carbon. Most of this synthetic hydrogen is used as an industrial feedstock, for making products like ammonia, fertiliser, plastics, metals, glass, and some foods like margarine and oils.

While reforming is relatively cheap, it also brings with it a large carbon footprint. The alternative conventional way of making hydrogen – splitting hydrogen from oxygen in water via electrolysis – is more expensive and can also create emissions, as the electricity is mostly derived from fossil fuels.

But hydrogen’s status quo is set to change, as countries around the world race to gain a foothold in a new hydrogen economy – based on hydrogen’s potential not just as a clean fuel source, but as a clean energy carrier.

Proponents say hydrogen’s real value is that it provides the basis for a scalable, infinitely rechargeable ‘battery’ that can store and transport energy – a gas that can be made using water and renewable electricity, compressed into a liquid for transport and storage, then discharged wherever it’s needed, using oxygen from air and with water as the only by-product.

As Australia navigates a path to a cleaner energy future, hydrogen could benefit our domestic energy supply by overcoming intermittency and transportability problems linked to energy from the sun or wind, as well as ‘firming’ fluctuations in the national grid and decarbonising our fossil fuel mix.

At the same time, clean hydrogen brings the prospect of a new and lucrative export industry. Countries like Japan, Korea and Singapore, which lack the natural resources for producing hydrogen at scale, have already signalled their commitment to hydrogen for decarbonising their economies.

CSIRO, in consultation with industry and government, has just launched a National Hydrogen Roadmap as a ‘blueprint for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia’. We spoke to report co-author and Director of CSIRO’s Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platform, Patrick Hartley, to find out more.

Why the need for a roadmap?

Hydrogen gas is a versatile energy carrier and feedstock. At the moment, it is mostly used in industrial settings. But if it were to be produced using low or zero emissions sources, clean hydrogen could enable deep decarbonisation across the energy and industrial sectors. Clean hydrogen is the focus of the CSIRO roadmap.

Hydrogen is already used in low-emission fuel-cell cars, trucks and trains. We could also mix it with natural gas – using existing gas infrastructure and appliances – to decarbonise Australia’s domestic and industrial gas consumption. This has real potential for decarbonising our energy supply. It’s feasible to supplement the natural gas piped to our homes with 10-15 per cent hydrogen, without the need to make changes to gas infrastructure and appliances.

Germany has been developing a fuel cell train, while China, the US and other countries are working on fuel-cell tramcars, trucks and even bicycles. Image: FelixM, CC0

Australia could use hydrogen to store and carry energy, supporting the national grid and balancing loads. Remote area power stations could run off solar or wind power with hydrogen storage, replacing diesel generators.

The future export opportunity for liquid hydrogen is significant, with the potential to generate revenue and jobs for Australia, similar to the existing LNG industry. Many countries have been quantifying the economic opportunities associated with hydrogen. The aim of the CSIRO roadmap is to ‘activate the market’ here by informing stakeholder groups – industry, government and researchers – about research and investment opportunities so that they can continue to develop the industry in a coordinated way.

So hydrogen could play an important role in the renewable energy sector?

Australia has a huge solar and wind resource that’s yet to be fully harnessed. One of the challenges is generating and storing the energy for use when and where it is needed. This intermittency issue has been driving new technology around storage, such as batteries.

But hydrogen is also a good storage option. You can take electricity from any source – renewables are ideal, as they are low-carbon sources – and use that to split water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis. You can actually store the energy from that reaction in the hydrogen and use it later, or transport that hydrogen domestically or overseas.

At the moment, compared to large-scale battery installations, hydrogen storage is much more scalable, in terms of infrastructure requirements.

Can you talk more about the role hydrogen could play in the transition from fossil fuels to a cleaner energy future?

You can make hydrogen from many different sources. As long as they’re either renewable or low-emission, you have a viable pathway to decarbonising energy consumption.

If you make hydrogen from fossil fuels, you do get CO2 emissions. But, as long as you can abate those – for example, using carbon capture and storage (CCS) – you’re actually making progress in decarbonising.

The Victorian Government is working with Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries on a hydrogen energy supply chain (HESC) project in the Latrobe Valley that includes a pilot plant to gasify brown coal and produce hydrogen for export to Japan in liquefied form. The pilot plant is located near a well-characterised CO2 storage reservoir in the Gippsland Basin.

The prize for Australia is that we could develop the basis of an entirely new export industry for low-emissions energy based on hydrogen. The HESC project enables the development of a large-scale hydrogen production and export infrastructure that can be utilised as more hydrogen from renewables comes online.

So will exports to Japan be important for our hydrogen economy?

Japan has committed to becoming a ‘hydrogen society’ under a 2017 government strategy. In fact, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been dubbed the ‘Hydrogen Olympics’. Japan has led the development of hydrogen cars (Toyota, Hyundai and Honda), and is rolling out hydrogen refuelling stations across the country, as well as looking at hydrogen for power generation.

As yet, there are no large-scale exporters supplying Japan, although the US, Norway and the Middle East are sizing up the market. This is a significant opportunity for Australia.

What are some of the applications happening in Australia at the moment?

The Moreland City Council in Victoria has a trial of hydrogen-powered garbage trucks with a hydrogen refuelling station at the depot.

South Australia has set up a project involving new PEM (proton exchange membrane) polymer-membrane electrolysis technology. The PEM electrolyser will use excess electricity from the grid with recycled water to produce hydrogen for injection into the natural gas network. The state will also host a 50MW hydrogen ‘superhub’ with co-located wind, solar, battery and hydrogen production.

The Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fuelled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen. ©  John Nguyen Photography 2016

A recent example of technology development in Australia was CSIRO’s new membrane technology for converting ammonia – a more cost-effective and easily transportable form of hydrogen – back to hydrogen at the fuel pump.

Where to from here? What’s the next step?

We want CSIRO to play a key role in helping inform the public, the industry and government on the opportunity, where the science and technology are at. By highlighting the opportunities, we want industry to use the roadmap to make decisions about where they invest in the hydrogen value chain and identify appropriate technology choices.

Many of the technologies in the hydrogen value chain are mature, but some require further investment and scale-up, as well as policy and regulatory support from government, particularly for infrastructure development. Both the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Office of the Chief Scientist (on behalf of COAG, the Council for Australian Governments) have recently published reports on the opportunities and challenges for Australia in joining the world’s emerging hydrogen economy.

The CSIRO roadmap and the other two reports provide an information base, not just for Australians, but also for people in other countries who can now see the level of interest here. We hope that will stimulate further government and industry interactions with Australia.

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