Hydrogen fuel comes closer

Using hydrogen as a fuel seems the stuff of futuristic science fiction, however, as Susan Bower reports, that future is closer than most people realise.

THERE is nothing new about hydrogen gas.

Thousands of kilometres of hydrogen gas pipeline networks criss-cross some parts of Europe and northern America delivering the gas to industrial processors.

However, research into how to put this gas to new uses, including transport fuel, has advanced so far as to spawn global talk of a future ‘hydrogen economy’.

The volume of such talk has steadily increased in the 2000s, driven by climate change and local air pollution issues, security of energy supply concerns, advances in fuel cell technology and hybrid fuel vehicle developments.

Much hydrogen is produced from natural gas, however, it can also be produced from solar, tidal and wind power.

Worldwide use of hydrogen as a standard transport fuel in hydrogen-powered fuel cells and efficient mass production from renewable – as opposed to traditional hydrocarbon – sources, remains decades away according to scientists, vehicle manufacturers and fuel companies.

The fuel cell uses electrochemical means to convert fuel to power, emits only water and is up to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

The basic principles behind hydrogen fuel cell technology have been understood by scientists for two centuries, however, Royal Dutch Petroleum president Jeroen van der Veer anticipates that it will be 2050 before low emission and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become common-place.

However, some hydrogen technologies are considered able to penetrate markets sooner than others.

Fuel cell power and heat generation technology is close to becoming a commercial reality and hydrogen fuel cells developed for combined power and heat generation have been proven to be highly efficient.

First widespread commercial use of hydrogen fuel cells is likely to be as battery replacements in portable appliances such as laptop computers and mobile phones.

The Australian Government has decided that whether or not there will ever be a true hydrogen economy is not the issue.

Australian governments and organisations are very much a part of the international push to develop more widespread applications for hydrogen use and the Federal Government has recognised a responsibility to be involved in various additional capacities including policy, training and standards development.

The Government commissioned a National Hydrogen Study to report to key ministers later this year on opportunities, impediments and implications for Australia in moving towards a greater use of hydrogen-based technology.

Managed by ACIL Tasman and Parsons Brinckerhoff, the national study has produced an issues paper around which two workshops were convened, one in Melbourne and the other in Perth.

An interim report coming out of the workshops was presented at a recent international conference held in Broome.

This report and other views conclude that many technical, social and commercial challenges remain in developing hydrogen use beyond feedstock and processing applications.

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