Australia hydrogen

Hydrogen has two domestic areas for Australia: transport and natural-gas grid injection. Added to this is the need to find a way to use intermittent renewable energy effectively, and develop an export market in hydrogen to satisfy the growing potential in countries like Japan, and green hydrogen seems to offer an excellent opportunity.

In November 2017, the Hydrogen Council, a global association, issued a report in which hydrogen is proposed as a major contributor to final energy demand. In the report they calculate that 18% of the world’s final energy demand could be fuelled by hydrogen by 2050. This would be a 2.5 trillion US-dollar industry employing 30 million people worldwide. Countries like Australia are looking seriously at this proposal. Intermittent renewable energy, whenever it is available, and not needed for grid distribution, can be converted into hydrogen through electrolysis.

Although currently more expensive than using fossil fuel, such as methane or coal gas, technological developments and changing market conditions may soon change that. This hydrogen can be injected directly into the gas network, used in industry and heating, and for powering fuel cells in vehicles. Per unit weight, hydrogen is far more powerful than hydrocarbons – that is why the space shuttle used hydrogen.

However, to use in some applications, such as to mix with natural gas, there are limitations to hydrogen use. The seals in a gas pipe network are damaged in time by more than 10% hydrogen. Hydrogen can be readily converted into methane by a process combining it with carbon dioxide. On a large scale, this has the added benefit of sequestrating CO2 from industrial processes or even straight form the atmosphere. A win-win system.

Australia has plans to turn its abundant sunshine resources into a major energy export – syngas. It is this market which seems to be more interesting for investment from government and industry than replacing coal by solar and wind. At least while coal prices remain so low. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) believe hydrogen-based exports could be a multi-billion dollar industry, employing thousands of people, by the end of the 2020s. It views Japan and other Asian countries as markets with large growth potential for renewable hydrogen. The CSIRO estimates that Japan aims to obtain 40% of all its energy from hydrogen by mid-century, which would amount to 38 million tons a year.

Hydrogen can be transported in bulk in the form of ammonia gas, which is hydrogen combined with nitrogen, freely available as it is the major component of the atmosphere. Ammonia is very stable and can be transported safely in bulk using existing infrastructure. A membrane can separate ultra-high-purity hydrogen from the ammonia at the point of use. However, other projects seek to mass produce hydrogen using techniques such as gasifying brown coal, which works against environmental goals. Japan has announced plans to become a hydrogen society. For example, the forthcoming olympic village will be powered by hydrogen.

Australia made 10bn $A investment in large-scale solar and wind in 2017. To this can be added 1.1 GW of new rooftop solar. South Australia has 45% RE, Victoria 16%. Queensland has a target of 50% by 2030.