Hydrogen is the simplest element, the most plentiful in the universe. But this common gas is no lightweight. In fact, recent work by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and CSIRO suggests that hydrogen could be the missing element that allows us to develop an export industry for renewable energy to one day rival liquefied natural gas.
Just one kilogram of hydrogen can fuel a car for 110 km while producing almost no pollution.
Traditionally, cars have used petrol, which needs to be drilled and refined before being combusted, all of which creates emissions. In comparison, when using renewable hydrogen the only by-product is water. It can also be transported via pipelines, similar to the way that natural gas is today.
The viability of hydrogen as an export depends on converting the gas to ammonia, a stable chemical relative that allows it to be safely transported wherever it is needed – whether that is across Australia, Asia or beyond – then converted back to hydrogen at the other end.
Japan in particular says it is working towards a hydrogen-based society, where the gas will be used in fuel cells to power cars and reduce emissions. If Japan and other Asian countries continue pushing in this direction, they will be looking to import large quantities of hydrogen from countries such as Australia.
Clean Energy Council Chief Executive Kane Thornton said hydrogen makes a lot of sense if we’re looking for long-term, effective emissions reductions.
“We have all these amazing renewable energy resources at our fingertips. The technology developed by CSIRO to convert ammonia to hydrogen means that the natural power of our sun and wind can potentially be exported to other countries. The world is moving to reduce emissions, and if Australia moves now this is a genuine economic opportunity for the future,” he said.
ARENA has urged Australia to step on the gas when it comes to exporting hydrogen. We currently have a competitive advantage over many other countries, but ARENA warns this won’t last forever. Asian markets – specifically Japan, China, Singapore and the Republic of Korea – are key targets for this export. However, markets such as Norway, the United States and the Middle East are likely to increase their capabilities to export hydrogen as well.
Exporting renewable energy is one of ARENA’s four key investment priorities. In September 2018, it announced $22 million in research funding for tertiary institutions and scientific organisations to facilitate the development and integration of various emerging technologies. ARENA has also funded a project to investigate using pipelines built for natural gas to transport clean hydrogen in a liquefied form or in a chemically created carrier such as ammonia.
According to ARENA, if the conditions match up, Australian hydrogen exports could contribute $1.7 billion per year to the economy and provide 2800 jobs by 2030. The benefits for regional communities are also predicted to be positive. Facilities created to produce hydrogen are expected to be located close to the supply of renewable energy – in particular near large-scale solar farms.
ARENA’s former Chief Executive Officer Ivor Frischknecht emphasised the competitive advantage we have over other nations when it comes to hydrogen. “Australia has a golden opportunity to become a major exporter of hydrogen, as other countries look to transition to low-carbon energy sources,” Mr Frischknecht said.
After a decade in the making, in August CSIRO successfully fuelled a car with high-purity hydrogen derived from ammonia. CSIRO’s membrane technology allows hydrogen to be converted into stable, higher-density ammonia, transported and then converted back to hydrogen so it can be pumped into hydrogen-powered cars.
Now that it has been successfully demonstrated, the industry has the potential to become a major export industry in the way that liquid natural gas is today.
Curtin University has also unveiled a breakthrough in creating hydrogen from solar power through the use of a common substance that is sold in pharmacies as a vitamin supplement. By using zinc selenium, the method offers a potentially cheap and non-toxic way to turn Australia’s world-class sunshine into exportable renewable energy.