Hydrogen, renewables, manufacturing: what must happen next

26 April 2021
Experts react to international climate talks
Following international climate talks, Sydney experts from the Faculty of Engineering discuss the future of hydrogen energy, renewables and advanced manufacturing, and the investment that's needed to ensure Australia comes out on top.

Energy companies, and state and federal governments are looking to retrofit existing gas pipelines for hydrogen transport. Credit: Pixabay.

Hydrogen could be king, but there's one big roadblock

Dr Yi-Sheng "Eason" Chen is a researcher and hydrogen expert in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. He believes hydrogen could transform Australia’s energy market but says there is one big roadblock in the way of a meaningful uptake.

"Hydrogen wreaks havoc in many alloys, leading to embrittlement that can cause catastrophic failure. This is a very serious issue for any industry in which structures are exposed to hydrogen and is a limiting factor for the production, transport, storage and use of hydrogen in a potential hydrogen economy," said Dr Chen. 

"The development of materials for a hydrogen economy is a challenge that requires a coherent and coordinated national effort. Addressing this issue requires long-term investment in the emerging generations of researchers and engineers who will serve the hydrogen energy sector for the next 50 years."

"There are many skill sets that are required to solve the hydrogen embrittlement problem, but at its core will be metallurgy and metallurgical engineering. In this aspect, Australian researchers are already active and making important new contributions to the hydrogen embrittlement problem.

"For example, to understand exactly how hydrogen interacts with metals at the atomic level – which is the critical information for designing a metal that can better withstand embrittlement – researchers at the University of Sydney have developed a unique microscope that can directly observe hydrogen atoms in metallic samples.

"Australia already has the ingredients for success in the global race for a hydrogen future, but first our universities, industries and government must work together and lead the world in finding the answer to hydrogen embrittlement. While the path to a hydrogen future isn’t an easy one, if we can solve hydrogen embrittlement we will be much closer to achieving a decarbonised energy portfolio, and creating a new, clean export market in Australia."

Advanced manufacturing should be at the heart of shift to renewables

Professor Simon Ringer, who is the Director of Core Research Facilities, believes that a commitment to a net-zero emissions target requires urgent investment in advanced manufacturing.

The Sydney Manufacturing Hub. Credit: University of Sydney

“Not only is this energy discussion all happening in the midst of imperatives from climate change, but it is also happening in the midst of a tremendous scientific and technological disruption: advanced manufacturing," said Professor Ringer.

“Additive technologies, new materials science, digital design and ’industry 4.0’ are transforming manufacturing. Australia stands to win big – with dividends in terms of great jobs, sovereign capability and export revenue all there for the taking. So, we need to get our energy mix right from this perspective also.” 

Sustainable energy planning must be holistic

Dr Jeremy (Jing) Qiu is a Senior Lecturer from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, who is an expert in energy planning and electricity markets. 

"Energy planning means the process of developing long-range policies to help guide the future of a local, national, regional, or even global energy system. It has played a strong role in setting the framework for regulations in the energy sector, for example, influencing what type of power plants might be built or what prices are charged for electricity," said Dr Qiu, whose research aims to identify sustainable energy policy to enable Australia’s low-carbon transition towards energy sustainability.

"Sustainable energy planning takes a more holistic approach to the problem of planning for future energy needs. It is based on a structured decision-making process. My research aims to enhance the reliability and economic efficiency of our electricity supply networks, allowing them to reliably supply quality electricity in a more cost-effective and sustainable manner with advanced engineering and computational methods."

"This research area is of great significance, as it addresses the environmental impacts of energy consumption and production, particularly considering the threat of global climate change, which is caused largely by emissions of greenhouse gases from the world's energy systems.

"My current research focuses on transforming Australia into a hydrogen powerhouse by building enabling capacity in hydrogen innovation in a short timeframe and developing a comprehensive value chain energy planning model for possible hydrogen economy scenarios in Australia.”

Power electronics technology vital to green economy

Dr Sinan Li is a lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering who says that power electronics research will be integral to the shift to renewable energy.

Power electronics are devices that help convert electricity, such as solar inverters, which are little boxes that convert the direct-current (DC) voltage of a photovoltaic panel to an alternating-current (AC) voltage of our electrical grid. 

A solar inverter. Credit: Pixabay

"As the high-tech heart and brains of nearly all electrical power energy systems, power electronics (PE) are one of the key technologies enabling a wider proliferation of “green” technologies, such as renewable energy (including solar and wind) and electric vehicles. Their development should be at the heart of Australia’s energy-saving and carbon-neutral vision.  

"Today, power electronics are already used to process over 30 percent of global primary energy, and this number is anticipated to reach 80 percent by 2030. With billions of renewable energy generators and electric vehicles expected to be deployed worldwide over the next decade, power electronics are poised to be a major driving force in the next phase of global energy transition.

"However, to promote greater uptake of “green” technologies in Australia and worldwide, a deeper and drastic slash down of the cost of energy systems is urgently needed. My research strives to provide affordable, secure and lower-emissions energy systems by developing next-generation PE solutions that are more efficient, compact, reliable and cost-effective than existing technologies.    

"My research also focuses on new design automation tools for faster and cheaper PE product manufacturing. These research areas are critically important, as they can effectively address the cost bottleneck of our current technologies. These capabilities will significantly strengthen Australia’s economy while providing Australia with a competitive pathway towards a sustainable future worldwide."

Emissions must be lowered across the board

Associate Professor Ali Abbas is an expert in the circular economy and carbon capture who says greenhouse gas emissions must be lowered across the board.

"We need to lower our greenhouse gas emissions across all industry sectors. Technology will play a central role in Australia’s transition plans towards a net zero target. Low-emissions technologies are required at scale to achieve the reductions in atmospheric carbon," said Associate Professor Abbas, who is also the founder and director of Scimita Ventures, a company that is developing cleaner production technologies including the use of hydrogen.

"Coupling technology with the right policy is necessary for proper implementation of transition plans. We’ve found, under the right emissions trading scheme design, implementations of carbon capture and utilisation technologies at scale can be feasible economically, while lowering industrial emissions.

"Our clean power technologies are relevant for carbon capture, utilisation and storage, and consequently for the blue hydrogen industry. This is the engineering necessary for supporting the establishment of carbon markets and carbon trading.

"Importantly too, algorithmic intelligence solutions for low-emissions technologies will support direct investment in clean energy and renewable energy infrastructure. An emissions trading scheme will be critical to regulate these industries. This naturally will create new types of jobs that support regional growth."

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