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January 26, 2021

Planet Watch: Is hydrogen the fuel of the future?

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Energy researchers in the CSIRO hydrogen lab. Photo John Nguyen.

This article is made possible by the support of Byron Eco Park Holdings.

David Lowe

There’s been a lot of hot air in the media recently about hydrogen. The federal government wants the gas as part of their energy road map, and the green side of politics is enthusiastic too, with certain caveats. The problem is that there’s hydrogen and then there’s hydrogen. As an energy source, things quickly get complicated where the simplest chemical element in the universe is concerned.

At standard Earth temperature and pressure, hydrogen is colourless, tasteless, odourless and non-toxic. The molecule consists of two protons and two electrons. Burning it releases energy. When used in a fuel cell, the chemical reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen creates electrical current.

Hydrogen energy in action. Photo Pixabay.

Although hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance we know of (more than half the atoms in our bodies are hydrogen, for example, along with 91 per cent of our sun), it doesn’t occur naturally in a pure form on this planet – humans have to make it. This is worth doing because of hydrogen’s very high energy content by weight, and its potential sustainability.

In 2017 the Hydrogen Council coalition (including massive players like Toyota, Hyundai and Anglo-American) told COP23 in Bonn that hydrogen had the potential to contribute 20 per cent of the abatement needed to limit global warming to two degrees C, while also creating 30 million jobs and US $2.5 trillion worth of business by 2050. The coalition predicted a tenfold increase in the production of hydrogen in the next thirty years.

So where’s all this hydrogen going to come from? That depends what colour it is

Strangely, for an invisible element, hydrogen comes in quite a few colour varieties. Presently, 95 per cent of the world’s hydrogen production is of the ‘brown’ and ‘grey’ type. ‘Brown’ refers to fossil fuels as the source ingredient (coal or methane gas, derived via natural pressure or fracking) which is treated with steam to break apart the molecular bonds of the hydrocarbons. In the process a large quantity of carbon dioxide is generated. If this is allowed to escape and pollute the atmosphere, the process is called ‘grey’.

Solar flares as hydrogen converts to helium in the sun.

‘Green’ hydrogen uses electricity to break apart the hydrogen from the oxygen in water (H2O) in a process called water electrolysis. More energy is required to make hydrogen this way, but if the electricity used is renewable, this is a much more environmentally sound method of production.

There’s also ‘blue’ hydrogen, in which the ‘brown’ steam methane reforming method is used, with its environmentally unsound fossil fuel recipe, but then the resulting carbon dioxide is captured, and separated from the hydrogen. Like ‘clean coal’, this process is highly problematic.

There have been successful experiments making biological hydrogen with algae bioreactors, another green process, and by using concentrated solar thermal energy.

Whichever way hydrogen is made, the main by-product of burning it in air is pure water.

Is this the energy of the future?

Compared with the best battery technology, hydrogen can release much more energy per unit of mass. That means cars and trucks running on hydrogen fuel cells can cover longer distances. Refuelling is quicker too.

Tesla CEO (and battery manufacturer) Elon Musk has described what he calls ‘fool cells’ as ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’, but there are some major players, including Toyota, who see the potential of hydrogen very differently.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fuelled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen – CSIRO

With a background in applied physics, Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada has said in response to Musk, ‘We don’t really see an adversary “zero-sum” relationship between the EV (battery powered electric vehicle) and the hydrogen car. We’re not about to give up on hydrogen electric fuel-cell technology at all.’

Another innovation is the idea of fuel stations that make their own hydrogen, using solar power, from rain gathered on the roof. Honda has even built tiny solar hydrogen stations designed for home use.

In the US, Honda and General Motors are collaborating to build hydrogen fuel cells. Ford is doing hydrogen research. California is planning to build 200 hydrogen fuel stations by 2025. In Europe, the largest green hydrogen production plant is currently in Finland, but major European players like H2Future are looking at scaling up green hydrogen to industrial levels. The Chinese government has been talking about hydrogen for transport and distributed electricity generation. In Germany there will soon be hydrogen-powered trains.

In terms of transport, hydrogen has already had a famous moment in the sun. Prior to World War II, hydrogen-filled airships built by companies like Zeppelin and others were used as luxury inter-continental passenger liners, and also by the military. Some have argued that airships should be considered again for freight uses, perhaps as giant autonomous drones.

Hindenburg disaster, New Jersey, 1937. Photo Sam Shere.

In 1937 though, the golden age of the airship was cut short by the Hindenburg disaster, when 35 people died. Recent research suggests that the problem was initially with the skin of the airship, rather than the hydrogen itself, but however the fire started, the Hindenburg is a reminder that this gas brings unique engineering challenges. In 1986, a hydrogen leak may have contributed to the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. The risks of hydrogen should not be underestimated.

National Hydrogen Roadmap

In Australia, the CSIRO recently delivered a National Hydrogen Roadmap which seeks to shift the narrative from ‘technology development to market activation’, arguing that the key associated technologies are now mature.

CSIRO research has made it possible for hydrogen to be transported in the form of liquid ammonia, using existing infrastructure, then reconverted back to hydrogen at the point of use using a very clever membrane. Hydrogen produced in Queensland using this technology has recently been used successfully in passenger vehicles.

Possibly the most exciting potential for hydrogen is the possibility for it to store excess renewable energy, for example in places without big batteries, and to export that renewable energy without the need for lengthy copper cables and the associated power losses.

This can be achieved at community scale, or in conjunction with large wind or solar farms, such as the planned Yara Pilbara project, or the even bigger Asian Renewable Hub, which is expected to deliver green hydrogen by 2027. The Murchison Renewable Hydrogen Project is another exciting development in Western Australia. QUT has already exported the first green hydrogen to Japan from Queensland. The Grattan Institute recently suggested that low emission, green steel is another real possibility with hydrogen, creating thousands of new jobs in the process.

Federally though, the current talk from Energy Minister Angus Taylor is all about mixing hydrogen with fossil fuel gases in existing pipelines, and extending the life of dead-end fossil fuel investments by using these substances to make brown hydrogen for export. Business as usual, in other words.

This approach needs to be called out and resisted. Hydrogen has far more positive potential than that.


David Lowe
David Lowe – photo Tree Faerie

Author

Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and technology. He’s known for his work with Cloudcatcher Media as a campaigner against unconventional gas and coal.

David has also written Australian history. Many years ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum. David has lived off-grid in the Northern Rivers since 2008.


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21 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you David. I’ve had a vague, uninformed feeling that hydrogen had an impotent place in the worlds energy matrix. You’ve helped me understand how, in the clearest, most concise explanation I’ve seen. ?

  2. Stefanie, the fossil fools led by ScoNO and Taylor are looking at Hydrogen as the latest would be lifeline to keep the Fossil Fuel Industry alive and kicking on the public teat – Hydrogen from Black / Brown Coal is their wetdream
    and we all know how much ScoNO loves stroking his little black wonder rocks, yes.

  3. There is a company in Perth called Hazer that are building a plant that uses the methane from offgassing biofuels at a water treatment facility to achieve negative carbon emissions. Pretty cool technology.

  4. There’s a company in Perth called Hazer that are building a facility at a water treatment plant that captures its offgassing methane to turn it into Hydrogen. Capturing this makes it effectively carbon negative, which I think is pretty rad.

  5. AWESOME article David Lowe! Covered so many bases that I was expecting to see, and then some more. Thanks for the intelligent contribution. : )

  6. Not using Gas at home Joachim ? Stefanie ?
    Anyone from the progressive parties ? The ones
    That so berate anyone thats not committed to
    100 % renewables , using Gas in their homes ?
    Surely they would not be Gas Sniffers ?
    Oh the irony!!!

  7. Sorry to upset you Barrow but I’m no gas
    guzzler…. Nor do I…. rock a cradle while
    kissing coal. Haven’t you got something
    better to do than criticize every last word
    morsel science shares? Get real, son.

  8. Yo Gasman Barrow. You 100% correct, I don’t use gas at home, don’t have it connected, never have and never will old son but thanks for your concern. Renewables are the ONLY way, my solar panels upstairs loudly advertise that fact to every passer by of my home, which has been the case since February 2008. Barrow old son, thanks once again for your support of 100% Renewables.

  9. Well done Stefanie and Joachim no electricity bills
    They say it is possible to power the world by 2050
    With 100% renewables . Just have to build more wind turbines, and solar panels, Batteries etc .
    Apart from coal ? What other recyclable materials
    Could you use to manufacture wind turbines?
    Solar panels ? Electric vehicles ? Now it is very commendable Joachim and Stefanie that you both
    Are pushing the 100 % renewables, and you both minimise your carbon footprint ? so Joachim you loudly advertise the fact that YOU ARE using solar panels manufactured using 100% recyclable materials ? Or manufactured using Coal ?
    You tell me Joachim ? Or are you TRUMPED again .

  10. Hydrogen may have a transitional use for long range transport or shipping. Fuel cells are inefficient for the average commuter and the cost of setting up infrastructure will be enormous. Transporting hydrogen as ammonia may work but why would you transport tonnes of nitrogen around just to provide a relatively small amount of hydrogen Elon Musk is pretty close to the mark with hydrogen.

  11. No one’s trumped. If you want to play ‘cards’
    you’ve Trumped yourself. The game of ‘Look
    at me’ is out of date. Go hire a scientist for
    a week or so while you get your bearings.

  12. Barrow old son, you showing again how silly and illogical you are. But then again you being a tRump fanboy does explain it all. Barrow old son, in order to make change you have use what resources are available to you at the time to start the changes. So there is nothing illogical at all with my solar panels coming in part from The Black Economy. But things are rapidly changing and you’ll be pleased to know that ‘Green Steel’, ‘Green Hydrogen’ are a thing. The Green Economy will soon consign The Black Economy to the history pages and you may just live long enough to enjoy The 100% Green Economy.

  13. Whats this Barrow old son Joachim ?
    You see Joachim thats the problem with people like you and of the left ! Have a differing view to your own and you are shutdown !! Shutdown !!
    As long as the forums you are on are all agreeing
    With one another thats fine !! But dare anyone
    That may have a different Narrative well eyes open , block your ears, how dare they !!
    Get your blinkers of Joachim !! You are but the minority, just a few noisy ones who thinks the whole world revolves around them .. you see Joachim iam not left or right i sit in the middle
    where most people should .
    Incidentally just back from WA where i was asked to play in a team sport at a high level .
    Barrow old son what ever that means !! will be live long enough to see most Joachim not that old yet .

  14. There’s nothing wrong or insulting about
    ‘old son’. A lot of men say “how ya goin’
    ya old B…..d.” You must have a problem
    with age? ‘How are yuh goin’ old dear!’
    is female to female. No offense. Women
    it would appear do not ‘do nasty’ as you
    imply unless they, in turn, have been
    sent up. Maybe you could ask Joachim
    if she’s a bit annoyed with you since
    you keep saying “TELL me”. Now that’s
    a bit like a broken record. You try that
    on me & I just think [& laugh] ‘go chase
    your own tail’. Makes sense, Barrow.

  15. Barrow, the term ‘old son’ is a term of endearment, old son. What’s this nonsense of yours about ‘shutdown’. You and I are both free to scribble away our view points and yes you can mire yourself in the ‘middle’ of whatever you wish. You are free to middle muddle all you like but I want to progress forward. Critical issues, The Climate Emergency, old son, can’t wait for middle muddleness.

  16. Critical issues Stefanie ? Cant take a stand to support the Globe ? I 100 % support the Globe including the shire regarding any critical issues.
    both you and Joachim are so passionate about the Planet and Byron Shire, and both of you
    Were in full support of the Climate emergency
    And both of your STILL refuse to give a example
    As to why the Council Declared this ..
    Come on Ladies stand by your beliefs!!
    Give one example..???

  17. I’ll stand on… my ‘crashed up’ right leg if you’ll
    just grow-up somewhat, Barrow. The Council
    (one of many) believe in …….THE CLIMATE
    EMERGENCY along with most of the world.
    The world of Science knows more than you
    think you know. Your mate of the Royal
    Order – SchemeHo knows by far more than
    you – he’s just NOT fessing up how import-
    ant his other friends & business associates
    are because they all roll in ‘gold clover.’

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