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May 9, 2021

Is hydrogen part of a sustainable energy future?

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There’s a lot to like about hydrogen. For starters, it’s abundant. Hydrogen can store excess renewable power. When liquified, it’s more energy intense than fossil alternatives. In a fuel cell, it can generate electricity. When it’s burned, the only by-product is water.

But there are a lot of buts when it comes to hydrogen. Although it’s pretty much everywhere, hydrogen has to be extracted from its chemical bonds with other things to be useful to humans, and that takes a lot of energy.

Old-fashioned politicians and companies like hydrogen because it can be made from fossil fuels, like natural gas, which means it fits into business models that revolve around digging stuff up and selling it. But this will do life on Earth no good at all.

Nuclear spruikers like hydrogen because it can be extracted using nuclear energy.

Green advocates like hydrogen because it can be extracted from pure water using renewable energy.

For industries like heavy shipping, aviation, steel production, and power generation hydrogen has been presented as a sustainable fuel alternative, at least until better types of batteries come along.

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

Cooling the planet?

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 20C, while also creating 30 million jobs and US $2.5 trillion worth of business by 2050.

This federal coalition government predicted a tenfold increase in the production of hydrogen in the next thirty years.

A major problem with this ‘vision’ is that in the absence of a carbon price (or politicians and regulators with functional backbones), the cheapest forms of hydrogen production are likely to win out, and right now these are not the green versions.

Colourful names for a colourless gas

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 then treated with steam to break apart the molecular bonds of the hydrocarbons.

In these processes a large quantity of carbon dioxide is generated. If this is allowed to escape and pollute the atmosphere (what usually happens), the process is called ‘grey’. If the emissions are captured, the resulting hydrogen is tagged as ‘blue’.

By contrast, ‘green’ hydrogen uses electricity to break apart the hydrogen from the oxygen in water (H2O) in a process called water electrolysis. There have also been successful experiments making biological hydrogen with algae bioreactors (another green process), and by using concentrated solar thermal energy.



While Tesla boss Elon Musk has been dismissive of hydrogen fuel cells, betting everything on batteries, other auto-manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, and General Motors are continuing to experiment with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. California is planning to build 200 hydrogen fuel stations by 2025, and in Germany there will soon be hydrogen-powered trains.

What sort of hydrogen we have in the future will depend a lot on the price of renewable energy, which is continuing to plummet.

Here in Australia, there are some very promising developments, including CSIRO research that 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 membrane.

The recently announced Eyre Peninsula Gateway Project seeks to make 10,000 tonnes of green hydrogen a year to help power Europe, as well as 40,000 tonnes of ammonia (which is widely used in agriculture and other industries).

Even bigger renewable-energy projects are in the wings, such as the Yara Pilbara project and the Asian Renewable Hub, which is expected to deliver green hydrogen by 2027.

Research suggests that hydrogen that can be used where it’s made is of particular benefit, without the engineering challenges and costs associated with moving the gas around, or transforming it.

Meanwhile Energy minister Angus Taylor continues to talk about mixing hydrogen with fossil-fuel gases in existing pipelines, and extending the life of dead-end fossil-fuel investments by using coal to make brown hydrogen for export. Business as usual, in other words.

This approach needs to be called out. Hydrogen has a lot more potential than that.

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