Why the world is queuing up for 'liquid sunshine'

Is hydrogen-based power the way of the future? Picture: Shutterstock
Is hydrogen-based power the way of the future? Picture: Shutterstock

The world is eager for "green" energy and in May this year, the federal government established a $300 million Advancing Hydrogen Fund to support the development of the hydrogen industry in Australia.

Its stated aims are to drive investment, develop local production of the fuel, set up supply chains and support projects which increase demand.

The strategy aims to make it a global export industry by 2030.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation is dispensing the funds and is creating access to cheap finance for new projects.

Hydrogen is widely regarded as the "end game" fuel because by injecting it into a fuel cell, the only byproducts are water and electricity.

Hyundai's production-built Nexo fuel cell (FCEV) car is powered by hydrogen.

Hyundai's production-built Nexo fuel cell (FCEV) car is powered by hydrogen.

However, the big impediment is the cost of production as a result of the fuel's poor energy density. Scientists around the world are working on finding the "silver bullet" to low-cost production.

Getting it down to around $2 a kilogram in liquid form is the long-term goal.

Using non-renewable energy resources like coal or natural gas to compress hydrogen is cost-effective but counter-productive to a low-carbon end result.

Creating "green" hydrogen from renewable resources like solar, hydro and/or wind, or through other means which cut carbon production out of the cycle, is regarded as the best way forward, although it is full of complexities.

What does switching to a hydrogen economy mean?

It means not just developing a clean way of producing the fuel, but making radical changes to our basic energy-handling infrastructure which for over 100 years has been geared up for fossil fuels.

Without investing in this future fuel, Australia will end up being a receiver of the technology rather than an innovator/producer, which is where the real economic advantage lies.

Clearly, the cheaper energy can be generated, with less debilitating effects on our climate, the air we breathe to survive and our environment, then the better off we all are.

Toyota's new generation hydrogen fuel cell bus, the Sora, was to have moved passengers around venues until the 2020 Olympics in Japan was canned.

Toyota's new generation hydrogen fuel cell bus, the Sora, was to have moved passengers around venues until the 2020 Olympics in Japan was canned.

Australia's key advantage is that we have the space and the sunlight to generate renewable energy in significant quantities.

Storing that energy in massive batteries, like the world's biggest lithium-ion battery now sitting at the 150 megawatt Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, gives us the power capacity to generate/condense "green" hydrogen into quantities which will serve both domestic demand and greedy export markets.

Markets like Japan and Europe, for instance, are eager for our "green" hydrogen - but only if the price is competitive.

How does hydrogen replace common fossil fuels?

Hydrogen is not a direct replacement for carbon-based fuels in an everyday sense but more the key to rethinking how we run everything, from our cars and trucks to our energy networks.

As a highly-condensed liquid fuel mixed with an oxidiser such as liquid oxygen, it burns hot and hard to provide sufficient thrust to send rockets hurtling into space.

It can also be a replacement for natural gas in our homes, with only minor modifications needed to existing infrastructure and appliances.

But simply burning hydrogen to generate thermal energy in the old-fashioned way is not as smart as using it as feedstock for what's known as the Ballard proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell.

These are the most portable, efficient kind of fuel cells on the market, relying on an electrochemical reaction to operate.

Pushing hydrogen into one side of the membrane splits the electrons and protons, creating electricity and water as a result.

You can drive a fuel cell car on hydrogen, and simply leave a tiny trickle of water in your wake. However, refuelling centres are very few and far between, with Canberra's sole station yet to be commissioned in Canberra. Refuelling a hydrogen vehicle is 15 times faster than fast-charging a battery-electric vehicle.

Is it safe? Will a tiny leak cause a massive explosion?

The Hindenburg was a giant German airship which used lighter-than-air hydrogen for its lift. It famously exploded in 1937 when coming in to land carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew. A hydrogen leak, ignited by static electricity, appears to have been the cause. And last year, a hydrogen refuelling station in Norway blew up - with no loss of life - due to a leak in a high-pressure tank from a wrongly-inserted plug.

But the Norwegian explosion was the first recent malfunction of the fuel-handling technology. There are always risks associated with the handling of volatile fuels but the safety is improving all the time.

So what's the hold-up in switching to a hydrogen economy?

Basically everything has to start from scratch. That means specialised infrastructure (fuel stations), vehicles, networks and industrial processes. From an export perspective, our existing bulk handling infrastructure for liquid natural gas (LNG) doesn't suit the handling of hydrogen.

So some alternative thinking is going on. The first step is to figure out how hydrogen and LNG can be handled separately through the same terminals, and then transported.

The world's first hydrogen bulk carrier was launched in Japan in December last year as a technology demonstration to establish an international hydrogen energy supply chain. The ship can carry 1250 cubic metres of hydrogen cooled to minus 253 degrees Centigrade.

Where to from here?

As far as a national commitment can take us. Current progress is slow, but as investment begins to snowball then the process will gather its own momentum.

For instance, a Queensland company is setting up a gigawatt-scale green hydrogen and ammonia development and a gas injection facility to blend renewable hydrogen into its natural gas network.

In Perth, Blue Energy recently unveiled a plan to deliver Australia's first green hydrogen baseload power plant aimed at providing 1000 megawatts of green hydrogen using solar, wind and hydrogen fuel cells.

As Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel puts it, the world is full of customers waiting for us to send them some "liquid sunshine".

This story The quest for 'liquid sunshine': how viable is hydrogen energy? first appeared on The Canberra Times.