For UNESCO’s World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development (4 March), create is presenting a series of discussions with experts, revealing the evidence — including major innovations and projects, challenges and solutions, opportunities and risks — that proves engineers in Australia are leading the way to a better future. Find all create’s WED22 content here.
In a world that is decarbonising, numerous national economies are unable to produce their own energy.
In the past, they have relied on imports. They are now looking at options to import renewable energy.
For nations that don’t have enough solar or wind, hydrogen will be an important part of the solution.
“Here, hydrogen plays an important role,” said Dr Fiona Simon, CEO of the Australian Hydrogen Council.
“You can’t export electricity, at least not in the way we tend to recognise. And batteries aren’t something you would export. Because hydrogen is carrying energy in its molecular form, it’s more like liquid fuels that we are used to exporting.”
Even in Australia, there are areas of our economy that are going to be difficult to decarbonise without a dense, liquid fuel equivalent that can be stored long-term.
“That’s going to be parts of the economy like maritime, industries that require very high temperature process heating, as well as areas where we already use hydrogen and need to move to its green version,” Simon said.
“We’re still in the early days, but I’m heartened by the amount of enthusiasm that’s out there. A significant number of projects have been announced in Australia — more than 74. We’re seeing enormous support and investment from governments in Australia and overseas. The US just passed a bill to put US$9.5 billion dollars into hydrogen programs.”
The gap in Australia, Simon says, is in the smaller scale projects — half a billion dollars and below. Large-scale programs will come online as soon as 2030. These will offer megatons of hydrogen made with gigawatt scale electrolysers.
If Australia is not prepared, it risks missing a massive opportunity to export to other nations. For the very near future’s necessary projects, engineers will be front and centre.
“A lot of work has been done on mapping the national hydrogen strategy,” Simon said.
“Early indications are that the future workforce will very much revolve around engineers of all types to enable the program of works.”
One of the cheapest ways to generate hydrogen in Australia without greenhouse gas emissions would be using electricity generated by nuclear power. For overseas markets, however, it is cheaper to export our nuclear energy as uranium.
I produced hydrogen in conjunction with copper and cobalt while developing and
commercialising a unique electro winning technology for Electrometals Mining Ltd, at the
Young Australian mine 100 km south of Mount Isa.
The rhetoric around hydrogen in Australia falls into the Silver Bullet category with many
excited proponents or commentators in reality seeking research funding (the science
integrity problem) or simply blind ignorant and repeating other speculation. International
studies to date have shown that so called green hydrogen can only be produced
economically by depreciated nuclear power stations. Subsidised development work is
already underway in the United States and within the Swedish steel industry to
demonstrate this but predicted cost issues still detract from likely commercial outcomes.
CSIRO has already shown that renewable energy has no place supporting this market and
UK studies confirm this. The world hydrogen market will be totally dominated by the USA,
France, South Korea, and others long before Australia’s possible nuclear power station
fleet reaches the financially fully depreciated state. Even the best combination of solar
and wind installations lead to under utilisation of the capital required for electrolytic plant.
In any case no one who has managed a complex electrolytic processing plant would like
to see the plant operating in a highly inefficient stop start mode. The installation of
storage to resolve this simply makes the economic problem worse. Using the CSIRO
evaluation report data and the best new nuclear power plant costing for Australia halves
the predicted cost of hydrogen to around $9/kg compared with the renewables supported
option but still gets nowhere near the target cost of $2/kg. The whole concept is a stretch
too far for Australia.
Hydrogen has some serious safety aspects as it tends to explode very easily in air
sometimes apparently spontaneously. Even small explosions can be quite violent and
dangerous. I note that CSIRO has been prosecuted for safety failures managing
Safety has always been managed quite well by good engineering and operational
practices at an industrial level. It is very difficult to imagine how good industrial practice
can be translated to the light vehicle sector and safely sustained at scale. Just one
explosion will immediately deter more than 50% of the population.
Thank you for your valuable insights. I would appreciate your viewpoint on alternative energy sources, particularly using wave power given how many Australians live near the coast?