By Nichola Davies
With Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel set to reveal a national hydrogen strategy by the end of the year, the role hydrogen will play in Australia’s energy mix is set to accelerate. We look to WA-based low-emissions hydrogen technology company Hazer for answers on how it can fit into Australia’s energy mix as well as how the technology works.
Hydrogen has been identified as a potential missing link for Australia’s energy mix, as well as a crucial part of the further decarbonisation of our energy system. With renewable penetration set to increase, it has the potential to provide system resilience and facilitate the transportation and distribution of renewable energy by turning it into hydrogen across the system.
According to Hazer CEO Geoff Ward, historically there have been two ways of making hydrogen. The predominant way, steam methane reforming, is used in heavy industry and is highly polluting.
“It uses methane as a feed gas, specifically natural gas in very large quantities, and in producing hydrogen it also produces large amounts of CO2,” Mr Ward says.
“The clean alternative to that is electrolysis, a system where you take water and use power – specifically renewable power – and produce hydrogen by splitting water atoms via electricity.
“That is potentially very clean and identified as the way of the future. But it can be expensive, so what we offer is a pathway of using abundant biogas resources in a way that doesn’t have the carbon pollution and emissions associated with the traditional way of making hydrogen.”
Hazer, an acronym for Hydrogen and Zero Emissions Research, was originally borne out of research at the University of Western Australia.
The Hazer process involves using natural gas and unprocessed iron ore to create low-cost, low-emission, clean hydrogen. In addition to the hydrogen product, the Hazer process produces synthetic graphite, used in lithium ion batteries, lubrication and industrial applications.
The production of graphite is a key difference in the Hazer method. The carbon content of the natural gas feedstock is captured in the form of solid graphite rather than being converted to CO2. With a successful pilot program launched in 2018, the company is now focused on commercialisation.
“Hydrogen, like wind and solar, is one of these technologies that will emerge not as an overnight success but as the result of many decades of research,” Mr Ward says.
“With a transition such as this, you have to have a price competitive supply position and price competitive products, and then you have to have the infrastructure to mix them together.
“But it’s expected to become a very large focus in the next decade particularly in countries like Japan and large parts of Europe. Increasingly also in Australia as we have good natural advantages to create a hydrogen economy and hence the government’s interest in ensuring we’re an early mover.
“I think everyone can see the structural and technical attractiveness, what the challenge is is to build the cost competitive industry that means we can have an efficient and reliable low-emission network at cost competitive prices.
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“To achieve this, policy is currently under development. The ALP took quite a substantive policy to the election. The key policy development platform at the moment is the development of the National Hydrogen Strategy, which has been chaired by Dr Alan Finkel.”
On July 1, Dr Alan Finkel announced the Hydrogen Working Group was working quickly to deliver the strategy by the end of 2019, taking a co-ordinated approach to its development. He called on industry, experts, end users, environment and community group to read the group’s issues papers and respond.
“Imagine a zero-emissions fuel that exists on Earth in abundance, can be easily extracted using basic chemistry and offers jobs and investment in Australia for decades to come,” Dr Finkel says.
“That substance exists: it’s called hydrogen.
“Just like natural gas, hydrogen can be used for heating and cooking in homes. Instead of petrol and diesel, hydrogen fuel cells can power electric trucks, trains and cars.
“We’ve produced it in large volumes for more than a century, for use as a feedstock in industry; and it’s been shipped and stored with an exemplary safety record for all that time.
“Now hydrogen is surging to the top of the global decarbonisation agenda.
“With your input, we can build a clean, innovative and competitive hydrogen industry and position Australia as a major global player by 2030.”
Mr Ward sees Australia’s energy mix to, in the next five to 10 years, have an increase in the penetration of wind and solar as they become progressively cheaper and as the system evolves and adapts to make more efficient use of a more diverse and flexible end-use mix.
He sees the continued growth in electric vehicles (of which hydrogen fuel cells are one way of driving the electric vehicle revolution), as well as continued investment in household storage as well as large-scale storage such as pumped hydro and big batteries.
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“I think we’ll see the growing use of hydrogen as a storage, transport and reuse mechanism for renewable energy, and all of those will allow us to build the system reliability, bringing effectiveness needed to take maximum advantage of the plunging costs of renewables as we retire older assets that are reaching end of life,” he says.
According to Mr Ward, in terms of renewable power, or as a transport fuel, there are not many significant hydrogen cases in Australia yet, but there are quite a number of promising demonstration projects underway.
“Jemena in NSW, ATCO in Western Australia and Neoen and AGIG in South Australia all have demonstration projects to start blending hydrogen into the national gas grids and demonstrate its long-term feasibility,” he says.
“Internationally there’s a growing number of examples. There is an increasing development of bus fleets, car fleets and refuelling networks in Korea, in Japan, in Scandinavia, in Europe, and in California.
“An interesting recent example is the German national government placed an order for 45 hydrogen trains – service trains for in and around Frankfurt.
“There’s a growing number of these projects, which we expect to accelerate in the coming years.”
For Australia, the National Hydrogen Strategy will enable Australia to define its role in the promising export market and position government and industry to implement it from 2020.
To read the National Hydrogen Strategy Issues Papers and respond, visit consult.industry.gov.au/national-hydrogen-strategy-taskforce/national-hydrogen-strategy-issues-papers.