If only solving the world’s looming energy crisis was as simple as putting out a press release. Geoff Russell explains why the hype over hydrogen isn’t going to cool a warming world. At least not yet, and not thanks to Australia.
It seems our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been born again, again. This time he’s been baptised in the cold liquid rivers of hydrogen. Hallelujah.
Non-metaphorically, liquid rivers of hydrogen would be -253 degrees C, so immersion would be quite deadly.
Hydrogen is getting plenty of press at present; and for good reason. If you can make hydrogen, then all you need to fuel our entire present transport fleet is carbon pulled from the air; otherwise known as ‘Direct Air Capture’ (DAC). This is because if you have non-CO2 emitting sources of hydrogen and carbon then you can make petrol (and every other kind of hydrocarbon) instead of pumping it out of the ground.
Given more than a billion motor vehicles on the planet, that’s certainly a worthy goal, because it would avoid the huge surge of emissions that would come from rebuilding vehicles that have plenty of useful life in them.
But capturing carbon isn’t easy and I wouldn’t bet on it being cheap at scale. But what good is hydrogen without DAC? Can you burn it to get energy? Yes. Just supply a spark and like atomised petrol, it will ignite (or explode).
You have to be rather careful about it, as with petrol, but even more so. But like petrol, it burns really quickly and you waste most of the embodied energy as heat rather than forward motion. To use it in cars you really need a different engine employing some chemistry that extracts the energy slowly and efficiently rather than with a bang. You actually want to minimise the bang for buck.
Enter the fuel cell.
It breaks the hydrogen into protons and electrons and sends the electrons along a wire to the other side of the cell; meaning you have electricity. At the other side of the fuel cell, the protons and electrons react with oxygen and eventually you just get water. So basically, you put hydrogen in and get water and electricity out.
There are still considerable energy losses in such a system, but far less than just crudely burning the stuff. So why aren’t we all driving vehicles with fuel cells?
Because, in a world without a carbon tax, they are expensive and you need a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure; which is really hard.
Back in 1973, during the OPEC oil embargo, the exact same born-again hydrogen hype was circulating as it is today. Here’s a 1991 paper on the world’s first solar powered hydrogen plant in Germany.
As it happened a cluster of what seem like small simple problems to lay people have always stopped hydrogen getting over the line as an energy transmission source. A hefty carbon tax or simply legislating to phase out petrol would make it happen, but that requires serious political will to put ideology aside and listen to the science; something that all sides of politics have failed to demonstrate in various ways over the past 30 years.
But fuel cells are definitely coming, and we need them. Because there is nowhere near enough battery capacity for everybody to drive Electric Vehicles (EVs), and in any event EVs are not clean enough; because making batteries is a filthy, polluting, carbon-intensive business. When it comes to climate change, the only technologies that should be in the mix are technologies that are at least 90% cleaner than business as usual; and EVs are nowhere near that clean. We don’t just need cleaner EVs, but smaller, simpler, lighter EVs.
The first car I ever drove was a Morris Mini 850. It weighed 627kg. The battery in a Tesla weighs 540kg, and it’s all fancy materials like graphite and lithium and cobalt and nickel. And the car that is wrapped around it is all electronics and strong magnets made with highly processed rare earths. Electronics are deceptive, small things can have massive environmental costs. Elon Musk has pulled off the ultimate scam – persuading the gullible that we can spend our way to a cleaner cooler planet.
The solution to clean transport will certainly include EVs, but the only solution which can drive emissions low enough in the long term is mass transit and steep reductions in personal international travel. This isn’t a palatable message, but there doesn’t appear to be any other solution and people have been working on this problem for decades.
Australia as the hydrogen valley to the world
Morrison said he wanted us to be the Silicon Valley of hydrogen… for $275.5 million over five years. This is a bit like a toddler thinking their pocket money will buy a Porsche. But that’s what you do when your background is marketing rather than technology or science or anything where substance matters. If we wanted to match German spending on hydrogen, per capita, we’d be spending about $3 billion. Considering how small and simple a hydrogen molecule is, it’s an expensive research area.
Currently the world produces about 70 million tonnes of hydrogen annually, with virtually none of it being for energy; mostly it’s used to make ammonia and refine oil.
It’s mostly produced on site. But there are some hydrogen pipelines. They total about 4500kms and exist in Europe and the US, but virtually nowhere else. In comparison, the CIA World Factbook lists almost 3 million kilometres of natural gas pipelines, built over the past few decades.
It’s more than likely that we can’t use the existing natural gas pipelines for hydrogen without some serious retrofitting, at best. But that won’t help Australia export hydrogen to the world. There are no bulk carriers (ships) for liquid hydrogen.
Strangely, the Morrison Government’s 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy failed to mention this. There is one Japanese ship that can carry all of 88 tonnes. That ship gets a mention in CSIRO’s 2018 Hydrogen Roadmap as the first of its kind. It has at least been finished and is in the water.
So how will Australia get any hydrogen it produces to the rest of the world? How will we ship it around Australia? Existing hydrogen production is mostly made on-site using natural gas. We have about 38,000kms of natural gas pipelines, but while you can mix in some hydrogen (up to about 20%) in natural gas pipelines, you can’t use them as-is for pure hydrogen.
Shipping internationally will need new bulk carriers or we’ll have to ship it as ammonia. Existing LPG bulk carriers can carry ammonia. The problem with ammonia is the nitrogen. Nitrous oxide is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and when you use nitrogen fertiliser, some of the nitrogen escapes as nitrous oxide. Making sure you prevent this happening is a serious problem for any ammonia-based technology.
Note that the nitrogen comes from the atmosphere in the first place. The problem isn’t that you are adding extra, as with carbon, but that you are transforming a benign gas into a highly potent greenhouse gas. Again, strangely, there is no mention of this issue in the National Hydrogen Strategy, which is basically more ‘ra-ra marketing document’ emphasising good news, than it is an actual technical document.
The CSIRO’s 2018 Hydrogen Roadmap is much better and mentions the problems as well as the benefits. It mentions toxic nitrogen products in a few places, but without detail. There are experimental catalysts that might solve the problem, but will they scale? That’s always the problem with new technologies, it’s hard to know the ones that will stubbornly refuse to work at the scales required. Perhaps they’re too fragile, perhaps too expensive. As they say, prediction is hard, especially of the future.
The other way of handling ammonia is not to use it directly, but to convert it back into hydrogen before use. The National Hydrogen Strategy has a nice little box about a CSIRO technology that can use a vanadium filter to produce high purity hydrogen. Why does it need to be high purity? Because the ammonia buggers a normal PEM fuel cell if it isn’t, and fuel cells designed specifically for ammonia aren’t commercially viable yet.
The CSIRO have a webpage about this game changing vanadium membrane. Their pilot project aims for 5kg per day; that’s not a mistake it isn’t 5 tonnes, but 5 kilograms.
Announcements about breakthrough technologies in hydrogen and related technologies have been on-going for decades. But as with Li-Ion batteries, these kinds of developments are just incredibly slow. This isn’t computer software, this is complex physics and chemistry. And going from the lab and into production is tough and into global production is tougher still. Many scientists have a mindset that records research and problem solving as the ultimate goal with production engineering as being boring low-status hack work. This attitude isn’t helpful in solving our climate problem.
Making hydrogen, turning it into ammonia, and turning it back into hydrogen and putting it into a fuel cell multiplies the inefficiencies (energy losses) and means you need a considerable amount of energy at the start. There are a bewildering set of possibilities here and they all involve energy loss.
The enthusiasm for hydrogen isn’t new. It’s a little like a disease that surfaces, disappears and then re-emerges. If it was as easy as writing press releases, it would have been done decades ago.
Australia’s natural disadvantage
Australia exported 75 million tonnes of LNG (methane in liquid form) in 2019. Mostly to China, South Korea and Japan. How can one make sense of a figure like that?
Think about Bungala Solar Farm in South Australia. It’s a $400 million dollar solar farm covering 800 hectares which generates 570 gigawatt hours of electricity each year. But only during the day.
75 million tonnes of LNG will supply as much electricity as 759 Bungalas covering 607,000 hectares with 318 million solar panels… but supply it whenever it’s required, day or night.
But of course, Bungala will supply that electricity for 25 years or so. So let’s divide the LNG by 25. How many Bungalas is it equal to then? About 30. So 75 million tonnes of LNG will supply as much electricity as 30 Bungalas running for 25 years.
We have a natural advantage in exporting LNG, namely that we have the gas. It doesn’t matter much that we are thousands of kilometres away from our markets. We have the gas, they don’t. It’s incredibly simple.
But hydrogen is different. Clean hydrogen is made by passing clean electricity through water. The process is called hydrolysis. What is our natural advantage? Do we have plenty of water? Keeping in mind that you have to use extremely pure water in the process.
The problem for Australia is that the cost of clean hydrogen is largely dependent on how efficient your hydrolyser factory is. A commercial hydrolyser is a big piece of expensive equipment and efficiency is largely a matter of whether you can run it for 6 hours a day or 12 or 15 or 24. Hands up if you think that a hydrolyser running when it’s sunny will be a world beater and compensate for our hydrogen being thousands of kilometers from its market?
And did I mention there are no ships?
All three of our major energy trading countries have extensive research programs into making clean hydrogen with nuclear power. Not only can you run a hydrolyser 24×7 with nuclear power, you can also use very high temperature reactors to split water without any electricity at all. All you need is heat. The Japanese program is currently stalled, along with other nuclear programs in that country. But that won’t last forever.
As the climate disaster rolls on, people will eventually realise the damage that 30 years of misinformation over nuclear power has caused. It has driven the world into the arms of the gas industry and made the path out of quicksand much more difficult.
When people wake up, and start building cheap reactors quickly, then Australian hydrogen will have nowhere to go. It will be a domestic industry, and a useful one, but ideas of global significance to rival our LNG domination will die.
The contrast of the decades of hydrogen development with nuclear power is stark. The first commercial nuclear reactor opened in 1956, just 14 years after the first reactor was built in a squash court in Chicago. Four years later, in 1960, a nuclear-powered submarine circumnavigated the planet… underwater of course.
Anybody who objects to nuclear power on safety grounds will also object to hydrogen on safety grounds, because it is far more dangerous.
The explosions at Fukushima were, as anybody paying attention understands, hydrogen explosions. Nobody died in those explosions, but hydrogen explosions do kill and injure people regularly.
A 2009 study of hydrogen accidents found 25 accidents which killed a total of 80 people. There were 70 more accidents which caused injuries and a couple of hundred which did major damage. And here are some more recent deadly accidents (US, US, South Korea, US x 2).
Why don’t the anti-nuclear forces gang up on hydrogen? After all, surely a hydrogen economy is one step away from hydrogen bombs?
Are hydrogen safety problems a reason not to expand this industry in Australia? No. We don’t stop people having roofs on houses, despite it being an incredibly dangerous job. We don’t ban cars, trucks and bicycles on our roads, despite daily carnage exceeding that of any industry.
But a rational approach to risks is hard to take when “fear” is a potent sales tool for all manner of organisations. A few deaths per million vaccinations shouldn’t have slowed vaccinations anywhere on the planet, but it did. Similarly, the occasional Tesla crash and burn isn’t a good reason for opposing EVs. There are far better reasons for thinking that Teslas suck.
We know that Australia has to stop exporting LNG, just as we know that China, South Korea and Japan have to stop importing and using it. For them to stop importing it, they need a clean alternative. In due course, nuclear power will provide it, and we can most certainly supply the uranium. That’s our natural advantage.
Australia’s current uranium exports, if we used them here, would supply our entire current electricity needs. We most certainly have enough uranium to replace our current exports of LNG. We could have had a carbon-free electricity system decades ago if not for the anti-nuclear movement. They need to be held to account for driving Australia and the world down the gas-powered highway.
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