Unlocking the hydrogen future



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Dr Finkel commenced as Australia’s Chief Scientist in January 2016. He is Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist. Dr Finkel has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator. Prior to becoming Chief Scientist, he was the Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE).

Chief Scientist of Australia, Dr Alan Finkel AO, discusses the potential of hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source and the role Australia could have in the global hydrogen industry of the future.

I’ve been having a love affair with simple elements, but my affection is fickle. For decades, as an electrical engineer, my favourite element was silicon, number 14 in the periodic table and unique in its ability to control the flow of charge in a circuit. Then, after a few years of involvement in the electric car industry, my affection shifted to lithium, number three in the periodic table and unique in its ability to store electrical energy in a battery. But in the last two years my attention and affection has gravitated to hydrogen, number one in the periodic table and unique in its ability to be used as a fuel and chemical feedstock that suffers from none of the usual side effects. It could provide us with an alternative to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is abundant on our planet. In fact, it’s the most abundant element in the universe. The only problem is that, at least on Earth, it’s chemically bound to other elements. The challenges that limit our capacity to access the energy it holds include the cost of production, doing so at scale and weaning existing energy users off oil, coal and gas.

In 2013, energy use contributed to 72 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At first blush, there are many options for us to decarbonise the energy mix, but for various reasons most of these are not serious contenders. Nuclear energy and new large-scale hydroelectric dams are both unpopular in Australia. There is simply not enough arable land to grow and process biofuels in a cost-effective manner. Geothermal, wave and tidal electricity generation systems do not scale to provide the level of supply needed for industrial economies.

This leaves us with solar and wind. Simple, you may think. But the reality is stark. In 2018 the International Energy Agency reported that oil, coal and gas provided 81 per cent of the global energy mix, with solar and wind only amounting to 1.2 per cent. Do the maths yourself – we will need nearly 70 times more solar and wind energy globally to replace our existing fossil fuel usage.

For some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, scaling up solar and wind to that level is not an option because they do not have sufficient solar and wind resources.  Both countries have identified hydrogen as their preferred fuel to supplement and one day replace their fossil fuel imports. Other markets committed to a partial use of hydrogen include California and Europe.

This provides an opportunity for Australia to export hydrogen. And we are uniquely placed to make that hydrogen from renewable sources – we have ample sun, wind and land to generate large amounts of zero-emissions electricity. The electricity is used in a process called electrolysis that splits water molecules and captures the hydrogen.

But the real question is, how do we do it at scale, at a cost competitive price? The Japanese government has already stated that it will in future purchase large quantities of hydrogen if it can be imported at the current landed price of LNG. For several decades, Australia would be supplying LNG and hydrogen into that market, generating new export income.

There is another option for hydrogen production, which is to produce it from coal or natural gas. Producing hydrogen from these sources, if done in conjunction with carbon capture and sequestration, is an attractive option because it increases the diversity of supply (so all our ‘eggs’ are not in any one energy ‘basket’). Unlike some other applications, when carbon capture and storage is applied to the hydrogen production process it is a manageable cost.

Hydrogen is already being used in small projects all over the world as a high density transportable fuel – it’s in long-haul trucks in the US, it powers trains in France, and cars in Japan and South Korea.
And already there is competition – we’re far from being the only runners in this race. Russia, Norway, Qatar and African countries such as Algeria and Morocco, are all keen to be part of the global market supplying hydrogen.

So while the three challenges of producing hydrogen at scale economically, ensuring a diverse supply chain, and competing against other countries are real, I prefer to see them as opportunities.

Exploring these opportunities and other issues is a major focus in the development of the National Hydrogen Strategy by a COAG working group that I am leading at the request of the COAG Energy Council. This strategy will result in a framework to support states, territories, the Commonwealth and Australian business to develop a hydrogen industry that is safe, cost-effective and of benefit to all Australians.

I am confident that Australia can play a part in the development of hydrogen as a fuel source that can contribute to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. But we need to plan, and we need to start now.

Bob Scott
I have been interested in GeoThermal to produce electricity for a long time. Research by Geodynamics near Innaminca showed the possibility, of large scale production, with NO EMMISSIONS. Power so generated could also be used to pump water for Hydro schemes, again NO EMMISSIONS. In the article above I did note that "GeoThermal" could not be "scaled up" I'd be interested to hear comments from suitably qualified people ex GeoDynamics. Also "fracking" required would not seem to provide any problems in areas such as North East of South Australia.
27/05/2020 2:06:10 PM

Craig Schumacher
Is there any reason for thinking that this is anything other than a scheme to continue the dominance of the oil/gas industry? Hydrogen is currently produced commercially by stripping it from natural gas. How many hydrogen enthusiasts in the general public are aware of this? We need nuclear power and electric vehicle transport. Hydrogen is a technological dead end.
3/09/2019 12:08:50 PM

Art Hyde
Electric vehicles are the answer for non-polluting road transportation, hydrogen fueled base load power stations are the answer to keep EV vehicles, industry and homes running! Until the hydrogen infrastructure is in place Natural Gas is the optimum transition fuel to keep society moving!
30/08/2019 9:00:16 PM

Phil Welling
It’s a great idea to use Hydrogen but it must be remembered that it will be converted from electricity and produced at lesser efficiency and greater cost. So what can be done with electricity and storage will always be done in preference to Hydrogen. Where does that leave Hydrogen ? Certainly not in ground transport. Most likely as a failsafe for the grid, long haul air travel and the production of steel. For these, electricity and storage has its limitations.
30/08/2019 7:02:18 PM

Jo bags
This is absolutely the best way forward for energy across a broad range of industrial commercial and domestic needs, this mad push electric vehicles is in isolation for our broader needs, money is being wasted that should go into national plan for manufacture, distribution and use of a new energy source into the future.
29/08/2019 8:58:42 PM

Rolf gerritsen
I believe we could compete in producing hydrogen.
28/08/2019 5:50:13 PM

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