Inside Story

Up, up and away?

It’s been a long road for hydrogen, but its time might finally have arrived

Nicole Hasham 27 March 2021 3082 words

Hydrogen began its long journey as a transport fuel on 1 December 1783, when French aeronauts Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert travelled from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris to Nesles-la-Vallée. Charles is shown reascending after the initial forty-five-kilometre trip. From Histoire des Ballons, by Gaston Tissandier/Alamy

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a Hyundai Nexo that has stopped to reverse into a parking spot on a tree-studded Canberra street. But no one is driving — this is an ultra-luxury ghost car.

Scott Nargar, Hyundai’s “senior manager of future mobility,” stands in the middle of the road holding a remote control. He presses a button; the steering wheel spins on its own and the car rolls backwards until it’s parallel to the kerb. From a nearby apartment window, a black cat gazes unblinkingly at this fusion of the supernatural and the mundane. And I wonder: is this what the future feels like?

Nargar opens the door and hops back into the driver’s seat. “So basically, after that, the car turns itself off, puts itself in park, locks itself and I can walk away,” he says, matter-of-factly. We drive on, and he runs me through the Nexo’s high-tech cockpit: blind spot cameras and pedestrian-seeking auto brakes; ventilated seats and a heated steering wheel.

It all sounds deluxe, but I’m mostly interested in what’s in the Nexo’s tank: pure hydrogen. Hydrogen-powered cars in Australia are rare; this is one of twenty on lease to the ACT government. The car runs on the electricity produced when hydrogen reacts with oxygen in a fuel cell. The only thing it emits is a curl of steam.

The car also filters the air as it drives. We pull onto an avenue leading to Parliament House and zip past cars belching fumes into the afternoon sky. Nargar points to a huge touchscreen display in the centre of the console showing he’s driven 208 kilometres that day. “I’ve purified 153.1 kilolitres of air — which equates to enough air for five adults to breathe for a day. And I’ve displaced nearly thirty kilos of carbon dioxide,” he says.

In May of 2020, carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere reached a record 417 parts per million, which means for every one million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 417 were carbon dioxide. These concentrations are growing steadily; in Australia, even Covid-19 lockdowns couldn’t stop the rise. Without radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, says the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a planetary disaster awaits. We must find new, cleaner fuel sources or else perish together. Renewable energy can certainly get us part of the way, but it won’t be enough.

That’s where hydrogen comes in. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in energy circles who disputes that, in theory, hydrogen could eliminate carbon from much of the global economy. How to do it right, and in time to avert climate catastrophe, is the conundrum now before us.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but you can’t see, smell or taste it. It was made in the Big Bang and went on to form stars and galaxies. On Earth, hydrogen is not conveniently available in its pure form but is bound up with other substances. Hydrogen can only be extracted without carbon emissions in one of two ways: from fossil fuels (using a technology that captures and stores carbon) or from water (in a process powered by renewable energy).

Fiona Beck, a researcher at the Australian National University’s Research School of Engineering, is interested in the latter. She and her colleagues have developed a technology that, in essence, converts water into hydrogen using nothing but sunlight. Converted to electricity, solar energy can power an electrolyser that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. But Beck’s new technology cuts out the intermediary: the solar panels have been re-engineered to create the hydrogen themselves.

“The problem at the moment is that the economics of buying an electrolyser and plugging it into renewable energy is not quite there compared to the fossil fuel methods,” Beck says. “What we’re looking at here is: how do you make it even cheaper, and actually do it all in one?”

Beck’s doctoral student Astha Sharma emerges from a lab. “She is the brains who does most of the actual work,” says Beck, motioning us both back into the lab. Inside, bundles of power cords dangle from hooks, and electrical equipment crowds every surface. On one desk sits what looks like a long black paparazzi lens. “There’s a big arc lamp in there,” says Beck. “It’s like controlled lightning. In a very small area, it’s actually a very large fraction of the temperature of the sun.”

Wearing disposable gloves, Sharma takes a tiny silicon solar cell, about one centimetre wide. Fused to that is another type of solar cell made of a material known as perovskite. She dips the cells into a clear container filled with an alkaline solution, then removes the cap from the lens. A sharp beam of light illuminates the liquid. Soon, tiny gas bubbles fizz from the cells.

“Is that hydrogen?” I ask.

“Yep,” says Beck, and laughs. “It’s actually not very dramatic.”

The project has set an efficiency record for solar-to-hydrogen cells: of the energy the cells receive from the sun, 17.6 per cent can be converted to useable energy — rivalling the most efficient rooftop solar panels, which convert about 20 per cent of sunlight into electricity. So, depending on how the technology develops, the end result may be dramatic indeed.

Alan Finkel, whose term as Australia’s chief scientist ended in December 2020, is head cheerleader for the nation’s tiny hydrogen industry. He talks up our potential to “ship sunshine to the world” — a merry description of exporting hydrogen produced with solar energy. And he proudly claims to be first on the waiting list when Hyundai starts leasing the Nexo to the public.

Finkel spearheaded the National Hydrogen Strategy, published in late 2019. It aims to make Australia a world leader in hydrogen within a decade: under the most optimistic scenario, it predicts that our hydrogen industry could be worth $26 billion to the economy in 2050.

I ask him if the economic calamity brought on by Covid-19 has damaged hydrogen’s prospects.

“I’m actually feeling more optimistic, because there’s so much happening globally,” he says. “We are seeing extraordinary monetary commitments.” He rattles off a couple made just before our conversation in the late spring of 2020:

€7 billion from France and €9 billion from Germany to expand the hydrogen industry in Europe and abroad.

Investment by Australia is far more tentative. Of two dozen or so hydrogen projects announced to date, Finkel says there are only about six “where money is actually flowing and ground has been turned.” At the time of writing, the Morrison government had committed about $370 million to support the hydrogen strategy; state governments have promised further funding, though smaller amounts.

Creating a mass market for hydrogen won’t happen overnight. “Let’s say you’re building demand for hydrogen through transport,” Finkel says. “You don’t suddenly develop hydrogen trucks and cars and develop the refuelling capability and people’s confidence in the regulations and the other stuff that makes an industry. It’s going to take years and years. So demand is the limiting factor here.”

Energy experts broadly acknowledge that zero-emissions electricity can’t solve the climate crisis alone — it simply can’t be used everywhere. Finkel cites long-haul transport, saying planes, trucks, trains and ships are unlikely to ever choof around with tonnes of batteries on board. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get on a big battery-powered plane at Sydney airport and fly nonstop to San Francisco with 350 passengers,” he says.

Hydrogen will also be needed to replace coal in the polluting steel-making industry. Globally, steel manufacture creates about 7 per cent of carbon emissions; a switch to green hydrogen there would be a boon for both the climate and the Australian steel towns of Port Kembla and Whyalla.

Australia is up against nations such as the United States, China, Brunei and Saudi Arabia in the hydrogen export race. But we have one distinct advantage: proximity to Asia and, in particular, Japan and South Korea, which have both wagered heavily on hydrogen.

By 2030, the Japanese government wants 800,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road, and 900 stations to refuel them. And at the Tokyo Olympics, delayed until July 2021, the flame will burn with hydrogen for the first time.

In December 2019, Japan launched the world’s first ship designed to transport liquefied hydrogen at the port of Kobe. Finkel was there as the 8000-tonne Hydrogen Frontier slipped into the water for the first time. “It hit me that this was the first ship ever made that will allow human beings to transport renewable energy from one continent to another,” he says. “It’s a new era.”

The global hydrogen economy suddenly appeared to be alive and thrumming in Osaka Bay. But the shape of the new world energy order is a huge unknown — not least because the Hydrogen Frontier will ship more than just sunshine. The launch marks the start of a controversial trial project in which hydrogen derived from Australia’s brown coal will be shipped to Japan. Some potential importers of Australia’s hydrogen, such as Germany, won’t consider hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels in the long term, even if some of the carbon that is produced is captured. But, Finkel says, “certainly Japan will, South Korea will, Norway will. It really depends on whether you’re focused on a technology and you hate it, or you’re focused on what counts — atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide.”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Horsley Park is best known for three things: God, guns and horses. The suburb in Sydney’s southwest is one of Australia’s most devout — about 80 per cent of residents identify as Christian — and it’s home to the equestrian centre built for the Sydney Olympics. It also has a prominent gun shop on the main street. Soon, however, Horsley Park will add another feather to its cap: as a green hydrogen pioneer.

In August 2020, the NSW government approved the $18 million Western Sydney Green Gas Project, to be operated by energy infrastructure giant Jemena. Touted as Australia’s largest hydrogen demonstration, it will generate green hydrogen, mix it into the existing natural gas network and deliver it to about 250 homes around Horsley Park.

Alistair Wardrope, Jemena’s senior engineer, has experience in the hydrogen business that dates back to 2006 when he worked for a British electrolyser manufacturer. I ask if Horsley Park residents would notice any difference if, say, they’re boiling an egg on a gas cooktop and there’s hydrogen in the mix. Wardrope pauses, then eventually answers: “No. If, hypothetically, we add 10 per cent hydrogen, we do marginally decrease the calorific value of the gas. But we’re talking about a very, very small difference. So no. If you’re talking about boiling an egg it might take a second or two longer.”

In terms of a broader transition, blending hydrogen into the mains gas network is considered one of the easiest ways to build demand in Australia. Unlike a hydrogen-fuelled transport network — which would need new vehicles, refuelling stations, and a new tranche of regulations and laws — mixing hydrogen into the gas network requires little more than an electrolyser and a valve.

About 10 per cent hydrogen can generally be blended into the extant gas network without needing to upgrade household appliances. Jemena is trialling a 2 per cent mix and will deploy strict controls to make sure the limit is not exceeded. It’s a cautious approach, for good reason.

In 2018, researchers at the University of Queensland examined public attitudes to hydrogen use and found safety was the top concern. Of course, all fuels are flammable, and hydrogen is already being produced and used without incident. But hydrogen ignites easily, and the public will need convincing it’s low-risk. Hyundai says it fired bullets at the hydrogen tanks of the Hyundai Nexo to make sure they could withstand a prang; I ask Wardrope if Horsley Park residents are worried hydrogen in their pipes might explode.

“The first thing to point out is the amount of gas [involved in the project] in energy terms is a very, very small fraction of what Jemena moves on a daily basis,” Wardrope says. “And Jemena is very well versed in safely transporting and handling flammable gases — which is what hydrogen is.”

The NSW government wants 10 per cent hydrogen running through the state’s gas networks within a decade as part of its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. If repeated across the country, that would be a fair bit of hydrogen. I ask Wardrope if projects such as Jemena’s might help move the dial — generating enough demand to create a mass market.

“It’s the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he replies. “You don’t have the users because you don’t have the infrastructure, and you don’t have that infrastructure because you don’t have the users. Where we can leverage off existing infrastructure to help break that cycle, it definitely helps.”

But even with public backing, and with the economics and engineering sorted out, the hydrogen shift seems incomprehensibly vast. It touches almost every facet of modern life. It needs to happen over months and years, not decades and centuries. It will take unprecedented political will — and vested fossil fuel interests won’t easily roll over. It will require permanent changes to not only our fuel sources but also the homes we live in, the cars we drive and the foundations of the global economy.

I ask Wardrope if he can see a road to a fully fledged hydrogen society. “I think, if we look at what’s happening around the world, the level of investment is increasing substantially in favour of hydrogen,” he says. “So do I think there will be a transition? Me personally, yes. [But] the jury is still out, it’s fair to say, which is why it’s important to do these trials. In terms of whether it will be a 100 per cent conversion? There is no precedent. But over the years, the network and energy users have gone through multiple energy transitions.”

Indeed, the tale of human energy use is filled with plot twists. We mastered fire and burnt plants to release energy derived from the sun. Agriculture turned the sun’s energy into food, and we harnessed wind to propel boats and grind grain. Since the industrial revolution we’ve liberated energy from fossil fuels — energy trapped millions of years ago in the fibres of ancient plants. Now we’re on the cusp of a new chapter — without carbon dioxide.

But hydrogen’s role in this future is far from assured. Storage and distribution is difficult and may slow the transition: exports, for example, require hydrogen to be compressed, piped, liquefied, sent out on ships and kept ultra-cold — at minus 253°C — in cryogenic tanks.

Producing green hydrogen will also require a huge amount of energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. According to Deloitte, installed electricity generation capacity in Australia may have to increase more than fivefold by 2050 under the most ambitious hydrogen production scenarios.

In road transport, hydrogen fuel cells may be getting smaller and cheaper, but some say they’re no competition for electric vehicles. Tesla founder Elon Musk put it bluntly, deriding hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles as inefficient and “mind-bogglingly stupid.”

And an extra degree of difficulty exists in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Most energy production consumes water; it takes nine litres to make one kilogram of hydrogen via electrolysis. Coastal areas are the most likely sites of hydrogen production; there, desalinated sea water or waste water will probably be used.

Wardrope acknowledges the headwinds. “But when we look at history, in every energy transition there’s been a benefit, a positive outcome for the broader community and the environment,” he says. “History would suggest we are on the right path. We’re looking at the right technologies, but it’s still early days. Which is why we have to start small, but think big.”

Back in the hydrogen-powered Nexo, it’s time for my afternoon drive to end. But in navigating back to where we began, I’ve led the driver, Scott Nargar, off course. I squint at the road ahead, looking for a road sign and cursing Canberra’s lookalike streets.

Nargar, a gracious host, hasn’t tired of showing off the Nexo’s luxury features and barely seems to notice that we’re lost. As I get my bearings, he plays a sample of the car’s inbuilt ambient sounds.

“There’s the sound of the sea, or rainy days,” he says, before flicking to a track titled “Open-air cafe.” “It’s all about enjoying the experience of driving an eco-car.” He skips to a track filled with the chirrup of birds and insects. As we whiz past a supermarket, he asks, somewhat dryly, “Don’t you feel like you’re in a rainforest now?”

Later, driving home in my diesel-chewing hatchback, I wonder about this next junction humanity has reached. Time has handed us the bewildering and unnervingly urgent socio-techno riddle of remaking the world’s energy system. So in labs and universities and factories and boardrooms, people tinker and toil to keep humanity going as is, just without the carbon dioxide. But if hydrogen and renewable energy save us, should humanity just continue as normal after that? At the Australian National University, I put the idea to Fiona Beck. She nods, as if to acknowledge the question is never far from her mind.

“I’m reading Doughnut Economics, which is about how we can’t just keep going with endless growth,” she says, referencing the widely read 2017 book by Oxford economist Kate Raworth, which argues, in Beck’s words, that humanity should live so “we’re not destroying the planet, but not deprived either.”

“We need to electrify, we need to go to renewables, but we just can’t produce renewable energy fast enough. We also need ridiculous amounts of energy efficiency, and [we need] to change the way we use energy,” Beck says. “It’s going to necessitate a change in mindset — away from ‘as much as you can, as fast as you can’ to considering the limits of the world we live in — just thinking about the whole thing.” •

This is an edited extract from “Hail Hydrogen,” in Griffith Review 71: Remaking the Balance, edited by Ashley Hay.