Hype or holy grail: What’s driving the hydrogen rush?

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Bell Bay, astatine the rima of the Tamar River, erstwhile housed Tasmania’s lone oil-fired powerfulness station. It was built successful the 1960s and, erstwhile it was decommissioned successful 2009, a caller works began operating straight adjacent door: Tamar Valley Power Station, which runs connected state instead.

Today, arsenic the satellite edges further distant from coal, lipid and gas, Bell Bay’s sprawling concern precinct has go the improbable mounting for a caller signifier of the vigor transition, 1 that is progressively gaining committedness arsenic a missing portion successful the propulsion to dilatory planetary warming: greenish hydrogen manufacturing.

Hydrogen – which burns cleanly and emits lone h2o – has been climbing towards the apical of the decarbonisation agenda. In the past respective months, governments, assets companies and ample Asian vigor users person been raising their bets connected the fuel’s aboriginal and bankrolling aviator projects crossed Australia.

Several of these are taking signifier successful Bell Bay, wherever Origin Energy, Woodside Petroleum and Fortescue Metals Group are each lining up to prosecute plans for large-scale “green” hydrogen facilities. By immoderate counts, much than $190 cardinal of greenish hydrogen projects were announced worldwide successful 2020.

Those betting connected hydrogen arsenic the adjacent large happening constituent to its imaginable applications arsenic some a transportable bearer of vigor and a nonstop high-density substance itself, susceptible of cleaning up the difficult-to-decarbonise sectors of the economy. Wind and star tin proviso energy for homes and electric-car batteries, but what volition beryllium done astir energy-intensive manufacturing industries for which viable carbon-free alternatives are not readily available? Hydrogen mightiness conscionable beryllium their solution. It’s besides being explored arsenic a cleanable enactment for aviation, shipping and dense freight and an alternate for heating buildings.

The exertion whitethorn beryllium straightforward but determination stay precocious hurdles to greenish hydrogen uptake and valid scepticism astir its outlook. For one, the prohibitively precocious outgo of the exertion to nutrient it raises questions astir whether it tin ever beryllium profitable. So what is greenish hydrogen? What’s driving the hydrogen rush? Is it hype oregon could it beryllium the beatified grail?

 Matthew Absalom-Wong

Artwork: Matthew Absalom-Wong Credit:

What is hydrogen and what is ‘green’ hydrogen?

Hydrogen (H) is the astir abundant constituent successful the beingness – No. 1 connected the periodic table. Here connected Earth, however, it does not beryllium alone. Rather it combines with different elements to signifier compounds – chiefly h2o (hence H2O: 2 hydrogen atoms, 1 oxygen atom) but besides earthy gas, ember and petroleum.

It is utilized contiguous chiefly successful lipid refining and to nutrient ammonia for fertiliser, but astir each hydrogen presently comes from ember and state done a process that emits c dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the International Energy Agency, the accumulation of hydrogen globally is liable for astir 830 cardinal tonnes of c dioxide a year, much than the full yearly emissions of Australia. This is known arsenic “grey” hydrogen.


For hydrogen to person a relation successful the cleanable vigor transition, it indispensable beryllium developed without creating immoderate emissions. One mode is to proceed producing hydrogen from fossil fuels but utilizing c seizure and retention (or CCS) exertion to trap the c dioxide earlier it enters the ambiance and hide it underground. This hydrogen is “blue” hydrogen.

But the cleanest mentation of each is “green” hydrogen, generated by renewable vigor sources without emitting immoderate c successful the archetypal place.

Green hydrogen is made via electrolysis, a process that uses an electrolyser to nonstop an electrical existent done h2o to divided the “H2” from the “O”. When renewable vigor is utilized to powerfulness the electrolyser, the extremity merchandise is emissions-free.

Why is hydrogen connected the docket now?

“I inquire myself, wherefore now?, fixed that the thought of a hydrogen system has been earnestly and often projected since 1972,” said Australia’s erstwhile main idiosyncratic Alan Finkel successful 2018. One reason, helium wrote, was the rapidly declining outgo of renewable energy. The other: Japan’s committedness to go a long-term, large-scale hydrogen customer.

On the planetary clime calendar, 2050 is an important year. It’s the deadline by which scientists hold the satellite indispensable execute nett zero emissions successful bid for countries to honour the Paris clime agreement’s extremity of limiting planetary warming to beneath 2 degrees supra pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures and debar the worst effects of clime change.

More and much countries person acceptable targets to execute nett zero emissions by the mediate of the century. Australia is not 1 of them. But the 3 biggest buyers of Australian shipments of ember and liquefied earthy state (LNG) – Japan, China and South Korea – enshrined their nett zero deadlines successful 2020.

“Moving distant from fossil fuels, utilizing much renewables, electricity, hydrogen,” says Prakash Sharma, Wood Mackenzie Asia-Pacific caput of markets and transition. “This is what nett zero is each about.”

Why Japan’s pledge is peculiarly important is that the federation is resource-poor and depends connected imported fossil fuels to proviso 94 per cent of its vigor needs. Wood Mackenzie, a planetary consultancy, projects that Japan’s decarbonisation strategy volition thrust important request for hydrogen imports by the 2030s arsenic it sets targets to blend hydrogen with earthy state for powerfulness procreation and person 800,000 hydrogen fuel-cell cars connected its roads by 2030.

More broadly, though, astir developed nations are pledging connected akin mid-century targets to get to c neutrality and, successful the hunt for strategies to decarbonise industries that cannot simply beryllium electrified and powered by renewable sources, much eyes are turning to hydrogen.

In countries specified arsenic Australia, governments and vigor producers person embarked connected strategies to make hydrogen accumulation and export capableness to conscionable that aboriginal demand.

The Hyundai Nexo is the archetypal  hydrogen-fuelled conveyance  to beryllium  certified by the Australian authorities  for usage  connected  the road.

The Hyundai Nexo is the archetypal hydrogen-fuelled conveyance to beryllium certified by the Australian authorities for usage connected the road.

How could hydrogen help?

As the propulsion to zero retired greenhouse state emissions takes connected greater urgency worldwide, the solution for immoderate of the heaviest contributors to planetary warming is already evident and available: electrification. In Australia and astir the world, energy procreation volition proceed shifting from fossil fuels to upwind and star – supported by batteries and pumped hydro. Cars that tally connected petroleum tin beryllium replaced with cars that tally connected batteries charged by a low-carbon powerfulness grid. So tin buses, trams and trains.

But what astir parts of the system indispensable to modern civilisation that can’t beryllium easy electrified – specified arsenic the manufacturing of products specified arsenic steel, cement, solid and chemicals that usage ember oregon state to nutrient ultra-high vigor oregon arsenic a earthy material? Then determination are different forms of transport – aviation, shipping and long-haul trucking – that necessitate high-density substance to question overmuch further distances than existing artillery exertion is susceptible of supplying.

By immoderate counts, a 4th of planetary emissions travel from this alleged “difficult-to-decarbonise” category. Perhaps the astir tantalising entreaty of greenish hydrogen is its imaginable to cleanable up immoderate of these sectors that person proved hard to decarbonise successful the past.

One of the apical targets for hydrogen is the steel-making industry, which straight accounts for up to 8 per cent of satellite emissions. Steel-making emissions travel from the ember utilized to nutrient coke for the elephantine superheated blast furnaces that person robust ore to molten pig iron. Hydrogen could regenerate ember successful this process.

It’s a exertion being explored by steel-makers astir the world. In Australia, the Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest-backed Fortescue – an robust ore mining institution that accounts for 2 cardinal tonnes of greenhouse state annually – is targeting plans to physique the nation’s archetypal greenish alloy works aboriginal this year, which volition analyse exertion including greenish hydrogen.

“Replace ember successful the furnace with our aged friend, greenish hydrogen … you get steel,” says Forrest. “But alternatively of emitting immense clouds of CO2, you nutrient thing much than h2o vapour.”

Another of the astir contiguous applications for cleanable hydrogen is fuel-cell electrical vehicles. Hydrogen conveyance exertion has been importantly overshadowed by the much fashionable and progressively mainstream battery-powered electrical vehicles, specified arsenic Teslas. Hydrogen vehicles relationship for little than 0.1 per cent of vehicles produced each year.


However, hydrogen conveyance exertion has immoderate advantages implicit batteries, including, typically, a longer driving scope and acold quicker refuelling times that could marque it a much viable alternate for heavier vehicles specified arsenic trucks.

The lighter value of hydrogen compared to batteries, which allows for greater distances without refuelling, and an vigor density per portion wide that is 3 times higher than accepted fuels has placed it arsenic 1 of the astir promising zero-emission technologies for aircraft, too. Hydrogen has 1 of the highest vigor density values per wide – 120 MJ/kg for hydrogen versus 44 MJ/kg for petrol. (This means that for each 1 kilogram of mass, hydrogen has an vigor worth of 120 megajoules.)

Airbus, the world’s biggest plane-maker, spent years exploring batteries but successful 2020 turned its absorption to hydrogen options instead. Glenn Llewellyn, the company’s vice-president of zero-emissions technology, says artillery exertion is “not improving astatine the complaint needed” for Airbus to execute its ambitions.

Will hydrogen unrecorded up to the hype?

Waves of enthusiasm astir hydrogen arsenic the clean-burning state that could regenerate fossil fuels person travel and gone for decades, and thing overmuch has happened. If hydrogen hype is to ever go a reality, precocious hurdles request to beryllium cleared. There is justifiable scepticism astir its imaginable to beryllium thing much than conscionable a tube dream.

“Mind-bogglingly stupid,” is however Tesla’s Elon Musk describes its usage successful cars erstwhile compared to lithium-ion batteries. “It’s conscionable precise hard to marque hydrogen and store it and usage it successful a car. If you, say, took a star sheet and usage that ... to conscionable complaint a artillery battalion directly, compared to divided water, instrumentality hydrogen, dump oxygen, compress hydrogen ... it is astir fractional the efficiency.”

The immense bulk of the 110 cardinal tonnes of hydrogen presently produced globally is from earthy gas, not renewable energy. In fact, little than 1 per cent of hydrogen produced contiguous is greenish hydrogen.

There are galore reasons to uncertainty the imaginable for hydrogen’s varied applications. Hydrogen is hard to store and transport; it is highly flammable and has agelong suffered an representation occupation (think, Hindenburg); the process to marque greenish hydrogen is hugely water-intensive (one kilogram of hydrogen requires 9 litres of water, raising concerns astir h2o resources); and, unquestionably, the apical obstruction is the cost.


The national authorities has acceptable a extremity of having greenish hydrogen produced astatine $2 per kilogram, the constituent astatine which it believes it would beryllium competitory with hydrogen sources from fossil fuels. The government’s renewable vigor agency, ARENA, says this would mean the outgo of electrolysers would request to autumn by arsenic overmuch arsenic 75 per cent.

“There person been mendacious starts for hydrogen successful the past,” the International Energy Agency says, but it acknowledges important enactment is emerging from governments, lipid and state producers, car makers and renewable vigor suppliers. “This clip could beryllium different.”

Many experts, specified arsenic those astatine the respected Grattan Institute deliberation tank, accidental excessively small thought is being fixed by Australian governments and manufacture astir wherever hydrogen exertion has the champion accidental of being commercially viable. A amended thought would beryllium uncovering hydrogen’s niches, which astir apt are the sources of emissions that deficiency cleanable alternatives.

“The authorities is placing excessively galore bets connected excessively galore horses, and immoderate of those bets whitethorn crook retired to beryllium a discarded of nationalist funding,” Grattan vigor programme manager Tony Wood says. “Instead of throwing confetti astatine everything, we should beryllium focusing our resources – prioritising and identifying areas wherever the cardinal economics mightiness person the astir potential.”

Is this a ploy by large lipid and gas?


In the aftermath of the latest multibillion-dollar hydrogen concern question successful Australia and astir the world, eyebrows person besides been raised due to the fact that it’s being funded mostly by lipid and state companies, who spot it arsenic a lifeline for their continued, semipermanent relevance successful a satellite that’s progressively legislating against c emissions.

Hydrogen could go a caller and perchance profitable manufacture for them, giving caller beingness to earthy state if bluish hydrogen takes off, prolonging the longevity of state infrastructure specified arsenic pipelines if bluish oregon greenish hydrogen is blended with earthy state for heating and cooking, and processing caller export opportunities to countries anxious for either zero-emissions form.

“Big Oil’s past basal volition beryllium to usage fossil fuels to make bluish hydrogen – storing the emissions successful the crushed and peddling it arsenic cleanable energy,” Forrest argues. “But it’s not clean, and governments are already falling for it.”

Oil and state companies are investing successful some bluish hydrogen and greenish hydrogen projects.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest lipid exporter, is seeking to go a hydrogen pioneer, with state-owned vigor elephantine Saudi Aramco focusing connected bluish hydrogen and different Saudi steadfast partnering with US-based Air Products and Chemicals to physique the world’s biggest greenish hydrogen works astatine the planned futuristic metropolis of Neom connected the Red Sea.

Oil and state institution executives explicate their industry’s propulsion to pb the hydrogen gyration by saying it makes consciousness for evident reasons and shouldn’t astonishment anyone: there’s nary different assemblage successful the satellite that has amended expertise.

“It fits good wrong our competencies arsenic a company. It’s what we do. We nutrient gases and liquefy them. That’s our basal business,” Woodside main enforcement Peter Coleman says. As well, the request for hydrogen is emerging from markets that companies specified arsenic Woodside already merchantability into. “The Asian markets – Japan, Korea and China,” helium says.

What’s adjacent for hydrogen successful Australia?

When it comes to hydrogen, governments some authorities and national are mounting precocious ambitions for Australia.


In 2019, the Council of Australian Governments’ vigor assembly endorsed a nationalist hydrogen strategy that aims to presumption the federation arsenic a large planetary manufacture subordinate and exporter of the substance successful its super-chilled, liquefied signifier by 2030.

Finkel, the nation’s main idiosyncratic astatine the time, remarked that Australia was “at the dawn of a caller manufacture … that could lend to jobs, export income, vigor retention and, vitally, emissions reduction”.

Australia is investing to assistance marque this a reality, committing $300 cardinal for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and $70 cardinal for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to jump-start a home manufacture by supporting projects. The national authorities has besides entered into a bid of partnerships with Germany, South Korea and Japan to research the anticipation of aboriginal hydrogen exports.

The national government’s concern program is “technology neutral”, meaning nationalist backing is disposable some to greenish and bluish hydrogen. This has raised concerns among immoderate concern leaders, renewable vigor advocates and the ACT authorities that utilizing hydrogen to store fossil fuel-generated vigor could prolong the cognition of coal- and gas-fired powerfulness stations and summation request for fossil fuels that could beryllium served by renewables.

Green hydrogen, however, appears to beryllium attracting much attention, with caller projects and associated task partnerships crossed the country. In Western Australia’s distant Pilbara region, a consortium is readying the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, proposing to nutrient greenish hydrogen and export greenish ammonia connected a monolithic scale.

Blue Infinite Energy is forging up with the Arrowsmith Hydrogen Project, northbound of Perth, mostly from on-site star power.

In NSW, state pipeliner Jemena says its $15-million Western Sydney Green Gas task volition make capable hydrogen to conscionable the vigor needs of astir 250 homes and businesses from mid-2021 and, nether a woody with Hyundai, could proviso hydrogen to substance the carmaker’s NSW conveyance fleet.

Origin Energy, 1 of Australia’s largest powerfulness and state companies, is proposing a greenish hydrogen accumulation works astatine Bell Bay for greenish ammonia exports successful 1 task and, successful another, is readying an electrolyser successful Townsville for greenish hydrogen for export and section proviso successful concern with Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

Woodside’s efforts are besides centred connected 2 projects: the Badgingarra Renewable Hydrogen Project successful WA’s wheat loop portion to nutrient greenish hydrogen for transport and concern applications; and the H2TAS greenish hydrogen task successful Bell Bay, targeting processing hydrogen for the transport sector.

In the latest development, the Tasmanian authorities struck an statement with Woodside to enactment its exertion for ARENA funding, and Woodside is moving with TasGas to measure blending hydrogen successful the island’s state pipeline network.


Places specified arsenic Bell Bay are considered perfect for hydrogen projects due to the fact that they are established concern precincts, person the indispensable existing infrastructure and, critically, person entree to inexpensive and abundant hydroelectric power, an important origin for greenish hydrogen projects to beryllium competitory globally.

“In presumption of renewable hydrogen, 3 things you request are electricity, h2o and infrastructure – road, obstruction and larboard – and we’ve got each them successful spades successful Tasmania, and specifically present successful Bell Bay,” says Guy Barnett, the state’s Energy Minister.

“Unlike galore different hydrogen manufacturing opportunities astir the world, Tasmania has the champion of the champion – it’s up to 15 per cent much outgo competitory present compared to the mainland due to the fact that of the complementary quality of our hydroelectric facilities moving with wind.”

Indeed, entree to tremendous wind, star and hydro resources are 1 of the reasons governments and manufacture judge Australia is an perfect location, on with the country’s commercialized relationships with large northbound Asian LNG customers. But successful a bid to go the satellite leader, contention volition beryllium fierce arsenic countries specified arsenic Saudi Arabia put heavy successful the technology, too.

As the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood explains, Australia’s lofty hydrogen plans person immoderate mode to spell earlier the exertion starts to marque consciousness economically. And, though hugely promising, whether hydrogen volition unrecorded up to the government’s hopes is not the definite happening immoderate hydrogen evangelists are proclaiming it to be.

“Rose-coloured glasses are a truly bully happening to have,” says Wood. “But sometimes I would regenerate them with wide solid instead.”

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