How hydrogen power could change our lives
As the world moves towards a clean energy future, here’s how hydrogen could change the way we fuel our homes, cars and industries.
When you spend a bit of time talking to people who know green hydrogen, you can easily start to believe that it’s the solution to all our energy problems.
It’s a totally clean and effectively limitless fuel that can be produced from sunshine and water. It can power ships, trucks, trains and cars, and the only thing that comes out of the exhaust pipe is water. It can be converted to electricity, or burned like natural gas to heat your home. It can clean up the steel industry that currently produces seven per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, and it has the potential to restart Australian manufacturing and secure our economic future as the world turns away from coal and oil.
It can even, some say, grill a better sausage.
Darren Miller is CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), one of the organisations charged with helping turn hydrogen’s potential into reality. Last year the agency was allocated $1.6 billion in federal funding to help develop low-emissions technology, but it has been funding hydrogen research and development for several years. Among those projects is an innovation hub in the Perth suburb of Jandakot.
“Part of that is a little demonstration home where you can run your appliances and your heating totally on hydrogen,” Darren says. “They have a hydrogen barbecue and a gas barbecue next to each other, and you can do a sausage taste test to see which one cooks a better sausage. The answer is hydrogen: it tastes much better.”
Despite the hype, however, the technology is far from new. The electrolyser, the device that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, was invented in 1800. The fuel cell, which turns hydrogen into electricity and powers today’s hydrogen vehicles, was first demonstrated in 1836.
The possibilities have long been obvious, too. In 1873 Jules Verne wrote that, “water will one day be employed as fuel”, and in the 1920s scientists envisioned enormous wind farms that would store surplus power as hydrogen. More recently, hydrogen has gone through ‘hype cycles’ following its use in the Apollo space missions in the 1960s and ’70s, and again in the early 2000s.
The question, then, is why aren’t we cooking our snags on a hydrogen barbie already? The answer is partly economics, and partly about the challenges of dealing with a light and highly reactive gas. The high cost of producing the odourless, colourless, flammable gas can be mitigated only by large-scale production, but that kind of hefty investment only makes sense if there is a widespread market for green hydrogen – and that doesn’t yet exist. But as the world grapples with climate change, and technology continues to improve, more and more observers believe that hydrogen’s time has finally come.