Hydrogen research at UNSW: closing the carbon loop

The hydrogen industry is already worth more than $100 billion per year but is on the cusp of even bigger things according to Scientia Professor Rose Amal at UNSW Chemical Engineering.

Scientia Professor Rose Amal says hydrogen research has advanced so much that an international race is on to commercialise the flow of new technologies and spearhead the rising global hydrogen industry.  Hydrogen BBQ

“There is great potential for Australia to get on the front foot and create a new economy based on renewable wind and solar energy with hydrogen as an energy carrier, and also a precursor for making basic chemicals from feedstock such as carbon dioxide,” Amal says.

“Such a step would encourage significant decarbonisation across our energy and industrial sectors and address climate change issues as well.”

Experts view ‘clean’ hydrogen (i.e. hydrogen that has been generated using renewables) as a prime energy source because it does not release carbon dioxide when burned and emits only water as a by-product.

Amal, who leads the Particles and Catalysis Research Laboratory (PartCat), has been one of the leading lights in developing revolutionary ways to use water and solar energy to recycle carbon dioxide into environmentally friendly fuels. She is emphatic about the opportunities for Australia to establish a hydrogen industry, not just for domestic use but for the growing export market.

“Countries including South Korea and Japan have started to implement their commitment to hydrogen energy. Japan’s transportation sector, for instance, has set up a US$330 million fund to promote the use of hydrogen energy, and they’re planning to use it to power most of the 2020 Olympic Games,” Amal continues.

“Significantly, last year Japan also declared their intention to start importing renewable hydrogen. This is significant for Australia in two ways: firstly, there is a ready-made market for the product if we can build up our export industry in time, and secondly, if Japan imports hydrogen, it may start to simultaneously reduce their large annual imports of Australian natural gas, which has obvious negative implications for our economy,” she says.

If my predictions come true, we would have an almost ideal outcome in terms of sustainable energy and a clean environment.

Scientia Professor Rose Amal, Director of the Particles and Catalysis Research Laboratory, UNSW Chemical Engineering

So how does Australia go about building this new economy? In August 2018, CSIRO published a report called the National Hydrogen Roadmap which quantifies the economic opportunities associated with hydrogen and lays out a clear path to realise them. The primary objective is to kick-start the next series of investments from stakeholders including industry, government and research so the industry can scale in a coordinated manner.

The CSIRO Roadmap coincided with the release of the Hydrogen Briefing Paper, which was commissioned by Dr Alan Finkel, Chair of the Hydrogen Strategy Group and Australia’s Chief Scientist. The paper states that hydrogen’s “time has come” and it could be Australia’s next multibillion dollar export opportunity.

Amal, who was one of the Strategy Group experts involved in producing the Hydrogen Briefing Paper, says the reality of a low-emissions hydrogen industry is now possible because the hydrogen value chain is underpinned by a series of mature technologies. While there is a lot of scope for more R&D, this maturity means the hydrogen narrative has already jumped tracks from development to market activation.

“We can draw parallels with the solar PV industry,” continues Amal. “The research challenge with solar was about increasing the efficiency, and the phenomenal success of the research, much of which was conducted here at UNSW, has resulted in the price of solar PV dropping 100 times over the last 40 years. I see that being the future of renewable hydrogen as well.”

The really interesting thing about hydrogen, Amal explains, is its versatility as an energy carrier and feedstock and she envisages a wide variety of applications. “You can generate hydrogen from renewables through electrolysis, you can store hydrogen and use it in a fuel cell for transport, you can use hydrogen as a gas for heating and cooking, and you can use hydrogen as a chemical precursor for things like fertilisers and pharmaceutical products etc. There are so many possibilities.”

Hydrogen research at UNSW is unique in the fact that researchers are exploring the whole solar energy spectra in order to generate clean hydrogen. While there are other research groups in the world who are looking at either thermo-catalysis, photo-catalysis or electro-catalysis in isolation, PartCat are the only group who are studying the synergistic effects of combining the different processes. Hy-Cycle

While Amal and her team are focused on hydrogen generation, Associate Professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou and his team from the Material Energy Research Laboratory in Nanoscale (MERLin), is concerned with hydrogen storage. Hydrogen storage is central to resolving intermittency issues in renewable energy generation and creating a successful export market.

He and his colleagues have been creative in demonstrating the feasibility of their technology by creating a hydrogen bicycle: the Hy-Cycle; a hydrogen BBQ: the H2Q and; most recently, a solar thermal reactor: SHiNE, which along with the Hy-Cycle and H2Q will be on display at UNSW’s Open Day on 1 September.

“With the Hy-Cycle, we can demonstrate hydrogen as a clean safe energy. Hydrogen for the Hy-Cycle is carried in a canister that feeds the fuel cell and continuously recharges a Lithium-ion battery,” says Aguey-Zinsou, who also contributed to CSIRO’s Hydrogen Roadmap.

The H2Q is a hydrogen powered barbecue that relies on combustion using a catalyst that recombines the hydrogen with oxygen to heat the cooking surface. “The H2Q has no carbon emissions, no naked flames or electric cords. It’s portable and great for indoor and outdoor use making it very convenient,” Aguey-Zinsou continues.

SHiNE, the solar electro-thermal reactor, has Amal and all her fellow researchers excited. “SHiNE is really cool because it shows, in an easy-to-understand way, how we can use solar power to recycle carbon dioxide with water to produce methane, which can be used as fuel or chemical precursors,” she says.

Amal and her colleagues, Associate Professor Jason Scott and Dr Xunyu Lu, have recently won two ARENA research grants worth almost $1 million each and she says it’s a really exciting time to be a hydrogen researcher. “There are fascinating projects underway all over the world, but in our corner, it’s thrilling to be able to clearly show that hydrogen has so many benefits,” she says.

“It can be used for cooking, for transport, for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, for addressing climate change, for making our energy systems more diverse and for solving the intermittency problem of renewables.”  
Amal is very proud of the work they’ve completed so far and highly encouraged by the burgeoning national and international interest in hydrogen. “If my predictions come true, we would have an almost ideal outcome in terms of sustainable energy and a clean environment,” she says.

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