One of Western Australia’s most abundant mineral resources – iron ore – is a key ingredient in an innovative process to produce cheap, clean hydrogen, which could have implications for the transport and industrial sectors.
Andrew Cornejo’s role in developing this new process started a decade ago, when he was a PhD student at the University of Western Australia.
His project on methane decomposition morphed into one that examined different ways of making hydrogen and producing carbon.
The technology typically used to make hydrogen has been available since the 1950s, and predominantly involves a process called steam-methane reforming, where methane reacts with steam in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen. Carbon monoxide and a small amount of CO2 are also produced.
Now Hazer Group chief technical officer, Mr Cornejo developed his PhD research to use unprocessed iron ore as a catalyst to create clean hydrogen and graphite without producing any CO2 emissions.
“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel per se … methane gas is 75 per cent carbon in weight, so essentially it’s all about what the carbon atoms do,” Mr Pocock told Business News.
“Instead of the carbon being turned into carbon dioxide, in our process that carbon is being captured as graphite.”
Hazer is in the midst of its commercial development, and although other technologies also can produce clean hydrogen, Mr Pocock said these were more costly.
“The technical risk of what we’re doing has always been seen, people have even looked at this specific way of making hydrogen before,” Mr Pocock said.
“The challenge for them was one of economics rather than the technology… you end up with a situation where an end user will look at it and say ‘what I really care about is my bottom line’.”
He said iron ore fines, at a cost around $70 per tonne, were the key element in Hazer’s innovation.
Mr Pocock said the hydrogen market was worth $US100 billion a year as an industrial chemical product, with more than 95 per cent of hydrogen being used in ammonia production, plastic manufacturing, and oil refining.
Another growth opportunity is in transport, given hydrogen’s emerging use as an energy form, especially in the technology that drives hydrogen-powered cars.
“Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are all rolling out fuel cell vehicles; it’s been developed over a long period of time to a point where it is now commercially available,” Mr Pocock said.
Mr Pocock views the graphite by-product from the Hazer process as another market prospect and hopes to tap into the battery market.
“You’ve suddenly got two products and the costs subsidising one another,” he said.
“There’s a lot of graphite in a lithium battery and they have become the defacto industry standard.”
The company received seed funding in 2014 and in early 2015 it secured the intellectual property for any form of iron being used in processes to make hydrogen.
Since listing on the ASX late last year, Hazer has constructed and commissioned two reactors at Sydney University.
Its static bed reactor operates at more than 150 times the capacity of the pre-IPO reactor and its fluidised bed reactor can generate more than one kilogram of graphite per day (more than 3,000 times the amount produced previously).
Despite shifting this part of development out of WA due to infrastructure and personnel issues, Mr Pocock hopes to continue to operate as a Perth-based business.
“We have a global focus on the market and opportunities but we have a local focus on where we come from and where we want to be,” he said.
Production is yet to reach commercial quantities, however Mr Pocock said the business was already developing relationships with suppliers anticipating the arrival of its pilot plant in 2017.