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Professor Graham Nathan on behalf of the Centre for Energy Technology

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The University of Adelaide

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What do you think are the two or three most significant recent developments in hydrogen?
1.1. Methane cracking/pyrolysis (which can be solarised with CST) The cracking (or pyrolysis) of methane (natural gas) has potential to offer a step-change in the cost of “blue” hydrogen (i.e. with low-net-CO2) over the commercial route via steam-methane reforming (SMR), whilst also reducing the cost and risk of CO2 management. The process of methane cracking produces hydrogen and solid carbon (CH4 to C(s) + 2H2), and has been identified to offer a significant potential to contribute to the transition to a low-carbon economy (Weger et al., 2017). Furthermore, since this reaction is endothermic, the required heat can be potentially provided by Concentrated Solar Thermal energy (CST). Opportunities: The potential advantages of this relative to conventional steam methane reforming with CO2 capture and sequestration (CCS) are as follows: • It avoids the need for CCS, since it generates no CO2. As a worst-case scenario, the solid carbon could be buried at a much lower cost than CO2 and also avoids the potential risk of CO2 leakage. However, the solid carbon also offers potential to be converted to a wide range of alternative products of value, spanning agricultural products of “bio-char”, through to carbon fibres, carbon nano-tubes and carbon-black; • This technology offers an estimated reduction in cost relative to SMR with CCS by some 40-60% (Parkinson et al., 2018). Note that this is even lower than the cost of electrolysis driven by PV and wind. • It offers the potential to use commercially available infrastructure, such as liquefied natural gas transportation systems, and to transform existing industry. Indeed, it offers a potential for LNG to be used as a hydrogen vector because the natural gas could potentially be converted to hydrogen at the point of end-use allowing any need to bury carbon to be done by transportation of solid carbon in ships (presently used to transport coal). This would avoid the expensive, and energy intensive processes of transporting hydrogen in some of the other methods typically proposed, such as liquid hydrogen or ammonia (Bruce et al., 2018). • An endothermic reaction that offers potential to introduce approximately 15% of the energy with concentrated solar thermal energy (CST), together with a temperature of approx. 800C, which is also compatible with emerging CST technology. Barriers: The main barriers to this approach are as follows: • the need to manage fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, which include the venting of CO2 at the well and CH4 leakage through the life-cycle of natural gas. Indeed, unless these parasitic emissions are addressed, the use of natural gas as a source of hydrogen could actually increase net global warming relative to the reference case (Weger et al., 2017). Nevertheless, these barriers are addressable with technology that is already available. • Natural gas is not a renewable energy source. Technologies: • The recent breakthrough in seeking to harness the cracking of hydrogen as a practical process has been the identification of the approach to bubble the hydrocarbon fuel through a molten metal as a plausible means to bypass the deposition of carbon, which had previously plagued the use of solid catalysts (Serben et al., 2003). This reaction was later demonstrated in a small-scale reactor with a potential to upscale by Wetzel and coworkers (Abánades et al., 2016). Work to date has been performed with molten tin as a suitable molten metal, although there is a potential to identify metals with even better performance. Despite the significance of this development, all research to date has been performed in batch reactors, which limit the potential to upscale the technology. One approach with which to potentially address this limitation is the University of Adelaide’s patent-pending technology that offers a potential for continuous production of hydrogen using molten metals in a chemical looping technology (Jafarian et al, 2017). This is presently at TRL-3. Another approach is via the Hazer technology, which uses iron ore as a consumable catalyst to crack the methane and also generate graphitic carbon. Further work is required to develop these types of technologies and to identify the relative economics of these various alternative approaches (and others) in various contexts, since it is likely that different approaches will have complementary benefits in different situations. Life-cycles across the whole value chain of supply into local and international markets needs to be assessed to support the technology development. However, these approaches can be up-scaled relatively quickly. • A new solar thermal bubbling reactor has recently been demonstrated at TRL-3 (Jafarian et al., 2019), which enables a gas to be bubbled through a high temperature solar receiver. This is a technology that offers potential to implement the solarising of the technology. Ongoing development of this technology is in progress. 1.2. Solar Photo Catalysis Photocatalytic water-splitting can be considered as electrolysis at the nanoscale. Its inherent simplicity gives it a massive advantage compared to other renewable hydrogen production technologies, having the potential to produce renewable H2 at the cost demanded by industry (i.e. <$2/kg). To date, the commercial implementation of photocatalysis is currently retarded by its perceived low solar efficiency. Recent advances in photocatalytic materials have demonstrated operation at solar-to-hydrogen efficiencies approaching 2% (Goto et al., 2018). However, it is important to look more deeply into the efficiency of photocatalytic water-splitting. For water-splitting, the best photocatalysts (based on metal-oxide semiconductors) are highly efficient at converting high energy (i.e. UV) photons into chemical energy - over 60% efficient (this is called the apparent quantum yield, AQY). Due to their large band-gaps, metal-oxide photocatalysts do not absorb below the blue end of the solar spectrum and therefore the overall solar-to-hydrogen (STH) efficiency is limited. From a fundamental thermodynamic perspective, it is possible to utilise photons down to 700 nm and this absorbance range is steadily being realised by mixing in metal-nitrides and other dopants to lower the bandgap. Additionally, other semiconductor materials such as reduced graphene-oxide that are responsive to visible light are also rapidly improving. Absorption of the entire UV and visible spectral range corresponds to 50% of the energy of the solar spectrum; the other half (the IR) does not have enough energy to drive the photocatalytic reduction and oxidation reactions. At the University of Adelaide, we have been developing reactors that utilise the IR (thermal) component of the solar spectrum for heating – specifically to heat water into a vapour. Furthermore, it is a poorly known fact that the reaction rates for photocatalysis scale with increased light concentration. We have demonstrated that this can be at least 50 suns equivalent (the maximum of our UV LEDs) for water-splitting. Thus, we are developing gas–phase photocatalytic water-splitting reactors that use concentrated radiation and water vapour. The high energy (UV & visible) photons efficiently drive the photocatalysis process and the lower energy (IR) photons heat the water to a high-pressure vapour. A further advantage of this is that the water is purified via distillation. Thus, it is possible to directly use impure water (e.g. sea-water or brackish water) or water vapour directly from the atmosphere. The use of concentrated solar increases the effective STH per area of photocatalyst. The rapid reduction in the cost of technologies to concentrate solar radiation that is being generated by the CST sector, enables more effective utilisation to be made of photocatalytic materials for water-splitting, offering potential to increase commercially viable. To date, photocatalysis has only been demonstrated at the lab scale and no end-to-end reactor technology has been developed to bring photocatalysis to industrial reality. Our work directly addresses these challenges by combining existing knowledge of photocatalyst materials and reactor technology to advance the TRL of a develop a device capable of hydrogen production using only water and concentrated solar radiation.
What are the most important safety issues to consider in producing, handling and using hydrogen in Australia?
Hydrogen is a commercial fuel and the technical aspects of its behaviour are well understood. The main risks to its broader commercial implementation are the much wider flammability limits and high flame speed, coupled with its propensity to leak through many existing commonly-used fittings that are safe for other fuels. However, the growth of the hydrogen economy may lead to a range of new—and unforeseen—challenges. Existing control strategies may not be applicable on a wide scale, and material compatibility required for mass distribution through pipelines will become critical. Aside from the engineering aspects of safety, the social acceptance will require careful consideration. Production: Conventional hydrogen production plants are well controlled and are generally able to exploit existing safety strategies. However, with an increase in the size of production facilities and the advent of alternative production systems, these existing control systems may prove inadequate. Monitoring of leaks and avoiding ignition sources are the two obvious issues. More insidious risks may arise from the development of new production methods, which may will include high temperature, high pressure and/or hazardous feedstock. These risks are not a direct artefact of the presence of hydrogen, but could be easily overlooked as the focus switches to the perceived risk of hydrogen explosion. Other risks would arise if a large number of small, distributed sources of hydrogen production technology were to be introduced, since these could generate new explosion risks. Handling: Once produced, the hydrogen may be distributed in multiple forms, and become the responsibility of various entities with differing levels of expertise. The different forms in which H2 could be transported, spanning gaseous or liquid hydrogen or various derivatives, each bring inherently different risks. Among these are high pressures and cryogenic temperatures, together with new chemical risks from materials such as ammonia. Material compatibility requires careful consideration. Whilst the risks can be controlled, highly qualified designers and operators are required. The potentially explosive nature of H2 can be mitigated by transporting ammonia instead—though this would introduce new risks, such as poisoning. As the hydrogen propagates down the distribution channels, it is likely to be handled by less qualified, or even by unqualified, persons. Therefore, additional control strategies will be needed to ensure that all processes are inherently safe. Regular servicing and maintenance of equipment will also play a critical role. Usage: Whilst devices that safely use hydrogen are readily available, problems can occur if the fuel is to be used in devices not specifically intended for use with hydrogen. One pertinent example is the blending of H2 into existing natural gas pipelines, or into internal combustion engines. Hence an understanding of the compatibility of existing equipment when H2 is added will be needed. During usage, the control and monitoring of risks becomes increasingly complex, as the distribution could be very widely spread across the community. At the user-level, the perceived risks become important for social acceptance.
What environmental and community impacts should we examine?
Some of these points are covered in the comment on safety in the section above.
How can Australia influence and accelerate the development of a global market for hydrogen?
Since the biggest barrier to the establishment of a global market in CO2 free hydrogen is the cost of production of this fuel, Australia will need to invest to overcome this barrier if it wants to accelerate the development of the market. That is, it should invest (or co-invest) in the development of technologies with strong potential to deliver agreed targets in net-CO2-intensity of hydrogen at the point of delivery with lowest cost. Note that the establishment of such a market does not necessarily require production of hydrogen in Australia, although this is an option, but may alternatively involve the production of a hydrogen carrier, or the development of technologies to convert existing energy carriers to hydrogen at the point of end use. Examples of possible targets are provided in the response to the next question. Since Australia is not the only country that could benefit from the establishment of such an industry, it seems to be desirable to seek to establish both nationally and internationally coordinated approaches to share the cost of technology development. Other countries with a synergistic need for clean hydrogen technology include the following: • Import-dependent nations such as Japan and Korea, which need to import CO2-free energy, with hydrogen export/import expected to be a key contributor; • Other solar-rich nations, such as Chile, Morocco and parts of Africa, which share the opportunity of exporting zero-net-CO2 from solar energy in the form of hydrogen. • Technology developing countries such as Germany, which benefit from supplying the technology. This would probably best be done within Australia through a series of coordinated programs, rather than one. Examples could be: • A path to diesel-free mining sector based on hydrogen for heavy vehicles in the mining sector in Australia, coordinated with other countries such as Chile and Morocco; • A path to CO2 –free ammonia production
What are the top two or three factors required for a successful hydrogen export industry?
We consider the top factors required for a successful hydrogen export industry to be the following: 1) The development and demonstration of technologies that can achieve the cost point needed for net CO2-free hydrogen delivered to the point of end use. 2) Simultaneous establishment of a domestic market for hydrogen as an energy source by investing in opportunities where the price point (i.e. value) is highest, to establish a clean hydrogen energy market. 3) Management of variability in quality: technologies to enable hydrogen purity in pipelines to be controlled in the light of a wide range of variable sources feeding into a transportation and distribution network. 4) Establishment of a clear, long-term policy framework with bi-partisan and international support. This could include targets such for technology agnostic outcomes, such as: a. 80% net CO2 free hydrogen delivered to Japan by 2030 at a negotiated cost-point (e.g. AUD $1:50/kg - $2:00/kg) b. 100% net CO2 free hydrogen delivered to Japan by 2030 at a negotiated cost-point (e.g. AUD $1:50/kg - $2:00/kg)
What are the top two or three opportunities for the use of clean hydrogen in Australia?
1) Underground mines: This is an opportunity where hydrogen has a greater value than in the general commuter sector because it offers potential to also: a. increase worker safety by avoiding particulate emissions; b. decrease the costs of ventilation by avoiding the production of CO, CO2 and other pollutants. c. Remote location, which increases the relative cost of diesel due to the additional cost of transportation. In-situ production is therefore of higher value. 2) Sustainable ammonia production: There is an opportunity to establish net-CO2-free hydrogen as the most energy-intensive step of ammonia production, which is presently supplied with fossil fuels. A path to a sustainable agricultural sector is justified because it would increase the value of Australia’s agricultural sector, which needs to transition to low carbon products. 3) Long-Haul Transport: A CSIRO report has already shown that hydrogen use for buses and trucks will be economically competitive in the very near future. The barrier to market lies in the required infrastructure for re-fuelling. An investment to establish multiple refuelling stations along the major routes (e.g. Sydney to Melbourne, or Sydney to Brisbane) will help to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel. This will incentivize bus and truck operators to switch to hydrogen, especially those who operate on the same routes.
What are the main barriers to the use of hydrogen in Australia?
Hydrogen is already used in Australia. We therefore presume that this question refers to CO2-free hydrogen. 1) The single biggest barrier to the wide-scale use of CO2 – free hydrogen is the cost of production. While some markets already exist for CO2-free hydrogen at its present price point, the cost is presently too high for it to be a major player in the energy markets. This is evident from Table 1 of the COAG report, which predicts the 2025 cost of hydrogen production from any of the commercially available low-carbon routes to be approximately $20/GJ. This cost is approximately double that of natural gas on an energy basis. The number of markets will increase as the cost of production reduces, since hydrogen brings some additional benefits to some markets. For example, in the transportation sector, fuel cell engines can be more efficient than internal combustion engines. However, hydrogen offers no significant advantage over other fuels, such as natural gas, to many of the large industrial users that only want energy in the form of heat. Indeed, converting to hydrogen may bring some additional costs in managing safety. Hence, in the absence of a price on carbon in Australia (e.g. a CO2 tax) or a legislative requirement to decarbonise, many users will only switch to clean hydrogen if new technologies can be developed to allow the new fuel to compete on the basis of $/ kJ. 2) A second related barrier is the extent to which State and Federal Governments are offering subsidies to those interested in electrification. Every time this happens opportunities to include hydrogen in the suite of fuels to reduce greenhouse emissions are reduced.
What are some examples where a strategic national approach could lower costs and shorten timelines for developing a clean hydrogen industry?
• Chile’s CORFO’s has recently announced a US$190m program to establish a Clean Technological Institute for solar energy, low emission mining and advanced materials of lithium and other minerals. This investment is targeted at the nation’s opportunity of synergistic coincidence of outstanding solar energy and mineral resources, together with an internationally leading mining industry. Key additional elements include the need for a circular economy, international partnerships and industry co-investment (30%). This long term strategic vision to invest in a sustainable pathway for its key opportunities seems to make a lot of sense. • While targeting the establishment of hydrogen for export is a smart strategy to avoid the climate change debate in Australia, incentivising hydrogen production from electricity may have some unintended consequences on the electrical grid and, hence in turn, on the price of electricity. Unless these are carefully assessed and managed, the interdependence of the electricity and fuel markets may cause some unwanted conflicts and public backlash. For example, incentivising hydrogen production from electrolysis may result in further investments being required in the electrical network to support the additional load, which may increase the cost of electricity. Hence, a national strategy is needed to consider those changes that may be needed both to the energy market regulatory framework and to the impact of any potential hydrogen incentives on this market if the nation is to ensure that the electricity market will not be affected negatively by any ‘hydrogen rush’. • Hydrogen production via electrolysis also offers opportunities to help to manage network instability and to reduce shedding of renewable energy sources. A national strategy is needed to maximise the potential of harvesting renewable electricity generation from distributed solar and wind sources for hydrogen production.
What are Australia’s key technology, regulatory and business strengths and weaknesses in the development of a clean hydrogen industry?
The main weakness is the lack of a policy mechanism that responds to the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in a manner that drives investment and innovation. One option, worthy of careful consideration is the introduction of a carbon-sharing system structured to incentivise innovation in all sectors. There is a real risk that in the rush to establish a national hydrogen strategy insufficient attention is paid to the content and nature of strategies being developed elsewhere. We need to be very careful to identify where our competitive advantages lie and avoid investing in areas where we are likely to lose. There is a real risk that investments in hydrogen from wind might fall into this category.
What workforce skills will need to be developed to support a growing clean hydrogen industry?
The answer to this question is provided in the box below
What areas in hydrogen research, development and deployment need attention in Australia? Where are the gaps in our knowledge?
Australia has expertise in the main segments of the hydrogen pathway, but does not have nationally-coordinated programs in all areas. For example: • The Future Fuels CRC is a nationally coordinated program focusing primarily on the domestic delivery and distribution of alternative fuels, notably hydrogen, in pipelines. This has a small program supporting technologies to lower the cost of production, but this is small; • A CRC is under development for future energy exports; • To the best of our knowledge, no national program is focused on technologies to lower the cost of hydrogen production using technologies where we are likely to have a competitive advantage. A range of alternative paths are possible for this.
Do you have any other comments or submissions to this process?
References [1] Abánades, A., Rathnam, R.K., Geißler, T., Műller, G., Plevan, M., Rubbia, C., Salmieri, Stoppel, L., Stűckrad, S., Weisenburger, A., Wenninger, H., Wetzel, T. (2016) “Development of methane decarbonisation based on liquid metal technology for CO2-free production of hydrogen”, Int. J. Hydrogen Energy, 41, 8159-8167. [2] Bruce S, Temminghoff M, Hayward J, Schmidt E, Munnings C, Palfreyman D, Hartley P (2018) National Hydrogen Roadmap. CSIRO, Australia. [3] Jafarian, M., M.R. Abdollahi, Arjomandi,M, Chinnici, A., Tian, Z., Nathan, G.J., (2017) “Concentrated Solar Receiver And Reactor Systems Comprising Heat Transfer Fluid”, International Patent Application No. PCT/AU2018/050034 from Australian Provisional Patent Application Nos. 2017900167 and 2017900564. [4] Jafarian, M., Abdollahi, R., Nathan, G.J. (2019) “Preliminary evaluation of a novel solar bubble receiver for heating a gas” Solar Energy, 182, 264-277. [5] Parkinson, Tabatabaei, Upham, Ballinger, Greig, Smart, McFarland (2018), J. Hydrogen Energy, 2540-2555 [6] Serban, M., Lewis, M.A., Marshall, C.L. and Doctor, R.D. (2003) “Hydrogen Production by Direct Contact Pyrolysis of Natural Gas”, Energy and Fuels, 17, 705-713. [7] Weger, L., Abánades, A., Butler, T. (2017) “Methane cracking as a bridge technology to the hydrogen economy” Int. J. Hydrogen Energy, 42, 720-731. [8] Y. Goto, T. Hisatomi, Q. Wang, T. Higashi, K. Ishikiriyama, T. Maeda, Y. Sakata, S. Okunaka, H. Tokudome, M. Katayama, S. Akiyama, H. Nishiyama, Y. Inoue, T. Takewaki, T. Setoyama, T. Minegishi, T. Takata, T. Yamada, K. Domen, (2018) "A Particulate Photocatalyst Water-Splitting Panel for Large-Scale Solar Hydrogen", Joule 2, 509-520.