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What you need to know about hydrogen energy

22 January 2021
How close are we to a hydrogen energy economy?
Australia is well-placed to develop a booming hydrogen economy and export market. But experts say there are several challenges that must be met in order for a wide-scale uptake and national rollout to happen.

Several announcements were made this week regarding hydrogen research and development in Australia, including the development of an Australian hydrogen battery.

Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals has said “green” hydrogen will give Australia an opportunity to slash its CO2 emissions.

However, experts say hydrogen energy remains a difficult technology to master and there are several challenges that must be met in order for a wide-scale uptake and national rollout to happen. 

University of Sydney experts from the Faculty of Engineering discuss what needs to happen for Australia to transition to a true hydrogen economy.

Understanding hydrogen and its opportunities

Solar panels in a field

Working together, solar and hydrogen energy could power a future renewable market. Credit: Pixabay

Professor Jun Huang from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering believes hydrogen has the potential to power the future green economy. 

“Hydrogen is a clean fuel and burning it only generates water and, unlike the burning of coal, there are no CO2 emissions," said Professor Jun Huang, who is a expert in hydrogen engineering and CO2 conversion.

“Hydrogen is the most naturally abundant element on earth, but hydrogen fuel doesn’t occur in nature. Instead, it requires a chemical or electrochemical process to produce on an industrial scale.

“Australia has an outstanding opportunity when it comes to hydrogen, being plentiful in natural gas and coal. However, the prize of renewable hydrogen lies in harnessing solar energy on a large enough scale to use renewable electricity in the conversion of water to hydrogen.”

Challenges that must be addressed

“The announcements reported this week refer to measures for converting hydrogen from water using electricity, which is a clean process," said Professor Huang.

“However the global challenge – and one that is particularly acute in Australia – is that this process is costly and requires large amounts of electricity. Currently most of this energy is generated from non-renewable sources – which currently means it is not yet truly “clean” energy."

“The price of industrial electricity in Australia is also several times higher than in Europe, the United States and Asia, which will result in the higher cost of Australian hydrogen production and lower competitiveness of Australian hydrogen in the global market.

“Australia must work out how to reduce the running cost for power generation and upgrade the power grid to make way for hydrogen.

“Access to fresh water is a global challenge in the production of hydrogen energy. Although Australia is surrounded by ocean, we lack fresh water and frequently experience drought.

“Because of these challenges, hydrogen production using electricity is only in its infancy. We will only be able to progress to large-scale commercialisation once these issues have been successfully addressed.”

A solution to hydrogen embrittlement must be found in order to transition to a decarbonised energy portfolio

Rusted water pipes caused by hydrogen embrittlement

Hydrogen embrittlement remains a key challenge to the uptake of hydrogen energy as a renewable power source. Credit: Pixabay

Dr Yi-Sheng “Eason” Chen is an expert in hydrogen energy from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and the Australian Centre for Microscopy and Analysis

He says that Australia's ability to use hydrogen as an effective energy carrier will critically underpin whether or not we will achieve a decarbonised energy portfolio.

“The transport and transmission of hydrogen is an essential part of this, however, there are significant challenges which must be addressed. Our current national plan is to use the existing infrastructure from the natural gas sector – high-pressure pipelines and storage containers made of metals, predominantly steels," said Dr Chen.

“However, hydrogen is detrimental to metals – a physical phenomenon we call 'hydrogen embrittlement'. What this means in simple terms is it can destroy metal and make it brittle, destroying pipelines and vessels intended to transport and contain it.  So far there's no evidence to show that our existing infrastructure is compatible for carrying hydrogen effectively."

"My research aims to address issues surrounding hydrogen embrittlement and find a solution for its transport. At the University of Sydney, we use a state-of-the-art microscope, known as cryogenic atom probe tomography (CryoAPT) that can unambiguously map how hydrogen interacts and moves in materials.

“CryoAPT can be used to study the behaviour of hydrogen, allowing us to understand how hydrogen leads to the embrittlement and how we can prevent it, which is an essential component to enabling a hydrogen future."

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