How hydrogen power could change our lives

Hydrogen in nature

Michael Coulter

Posted March 30, 2021

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. 

Hydrogen has the potential to clean up carbon-emitting industries and was used in the Apollo space missions. Photo: Getty
Hydrogen has the potential to clean up carbon-emitting industries and was used in the Apollo space missions. Photo: Getty

A new industrial revolution

Hydrogen has the potential to lower global greenhouse emissions in many ways. It can be used to generate electricity in a fuel cell, be burned in place of natural gas, and can replace coal in steel making. But it takes energy to produce, store and transport that hydrogen, and the environmental benefits depend very much on how that process occurs.

The world already produces and uses millions of tonnes of hydrogen, but that so-called grey hydrogen is sourced from fossil fuels – mostly by heating natural gas to split hydrocarbon molecules in a process known as ‘steam reforming’. It’s energy intensive and produces carbon dioxide as a by-product. Around 80 per cent of hydrogen currently produced is used to either make ammonia, a critical component of modern agriculture, or refine oil. A significant proportion of the rest goes into food production. 

In contrast to carbon-emitting grey hydrogen, green hydrogen uses renewable power, such as solar energy, to extract hydrogen from water, via electrolysis. The great hope is that this clean, green hydrogen can decarbonise dirty but essential industries such as power generation, steelmaking, heavy haulage and sea transport. But it’s still unclear where we’ll get the most bang for our buck – or quite how to make that happen. 

Hopes for hydrogen’s future are fuelled by the world’s increasing focus on climate change. With more nations pledging net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, green hydrogen produced using sunshine and water is one of the few obvious mechanisms to make that happen. Dr Dominic Meagher, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and co-author of Power State, a report on Victoria’s hydrogen potential, sees hydrogen as a game changer for the world in general, and Victoria in particular.

“Every state in Australia now has a hydrogen plan, and when you look around the world you see a lot of commitment,” he says. “I am optimistic you can make the jump from hype to reality. In the ’80s it was a future possibility, now it’s a present possibility.” 

Victoria, he says, is well placed to capitalise on that possibility. “Victoria has a huge amount of existing gas infrastructure – more than any other state – that can be relatively cheaply repurposed.” And hydrogen, he says, could play a key role in reviving Victoria’s underutilised manufacturing base. “Hydrogen can be part of getting the cost of energy right down, and if you’ve got a very low cost of energy, a whole lot of manufacturing and heavy industry options open up that weren’t really there before.”


Photo of solar panels, wind mills and hydrogen energy storage crate

Using solar and wind power to extract hydrogen from water has the potential to lower greenhouse gases in many ways.  Photo: Getty


Hydrogen at home

While large-scale industrial applications promise to deliver the biggest benefit, hydrogen in the home is very much on the cards, too. Pilot projects around Australia are looking at blending hydrogen into natural gas supplies to study the possibility of completely replacing natural gas in the long term. This may require changes to appliances and networks; pure hydrogen can corrode steel, and is prone to leakage because hydrogen molecules are so much smaller than natural gas. But the large existing investment in domestic gas means it’s worth pursuing, says ARENA’s Darren Miller. 

“Gas pipelines are worth tens of billions of dollars,” he says. “We need to test whether we can use that infrastructure in a totally renewable way.”

Among those who believe that is entirely possible is Australian Gas Infrastructure Group’s Craig de Laine. He says the gas industry has a strategy to move to net-zero emissions by 2050, with hydrogen playing a significant part in that. There are more than a dozen pilot projects around Australia investigating how to add hydrogen to the mix of natural gas for domestic use. In Adelaide the Hydrogen Park SA project will soon begin blending five per cent green hydrogen into the gas supplied to 700 homes. The reaction to the project from locals, says Craig, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People want to talk about hydrogen,” he says. “They’re very interested, particularly in what the growth potential is of the new hydrogen industry. A lot of the responses have been, ‘of course you should be decarbonising – why haven’t you been doing this sooner?’ ”.

The group is now bidding for ARENA funding to work on other projects across the country, including a masterplan to replace Victoria and South Australia’s gas networks with 100 per cent green hydrogen.

The other place where hydrogen is making inroads is on the road. Fuel-cell-powered cars are already in production in Japan and Korea, and both Toyota and Hyundai are running trials of hydrogen cars in Australia, with Hyundai lending 20 Nexo SUVs to the ACT government. Meanwhile, Toyota has just opened its Hydrogen Centre of Excellence at Altona in Melbourne’s west, featuring an education centre and hydrogen refuelling station with a 200kW electrolyser. It is also offering its second-generation Mirai fuel-cell car in very limited numbers to some “progressive” businesses and government fleets, with just 20 vehicle examples available in Australia in 2021.

Although hydrogen cars lag far behind battery electrics in development and popularity, there are great hopes for heavy transport, where kilos of hydrogen can store as much energy as tonnes of batteries. 


Car being fueled by hydrogen

Hydrogen-powered cars are already in production in Japan and Korea, and both Toyota and Hyundai are running trials of hydrogen cars in Australia. Photo: Getty


Are we there yet?

The scale of plans for green hydrogen are staggering. The Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia, for instance, plans to generate 26,000 megawatts of renewable power, with about 80 per cent to be turned into green hydrogen. (Victoria’s Loy Yang A and B brown-coal plants produce about 3200 megawatts.) 

That is far beyond the six-megawatt plant that opened in Austria in 2019, claiming to be the largest in the world, or the 1.25 megawatts being delivered by AGIG’s Hydrogen Park in Adelaide. But as many point out, the volume of solar and wind power has grown exponentially in recent years and there is hope hydrogen will do the same.

By far the most ambitious green-hydrogen project to date is being developed by an American-Saudi consortium which is investing US$5 billion to build the world’s largest green-hydrogen production facility in the Saudi Arabian desert. The consortium plans to spend a further US$2 billion to develop distribution infrastructure in consumer markets around the world – primarily to power industrial vehicles and public buses. Starting in 2025, the facility is expected to produce 590 tonnes of green hydrogen a day. 

But for now it remains an expensive alternative to other energy sources. According to the Australian federal government’s recent Low Emissions Technology Statement, green hydrogen will be economically competitive against fossil-fuel alternatives when it can be produced for $2 a kilogram. That’s a long way off the current cost of $6 to $9 a kilogram, but many believe it could happen surprisingly fast once the industry gains momentum.

“It sounds like it’s a long way away,” says Darren Miller, “but what gives us confidence is that when the technology is at scale it rapidly brings down the cost, as it has with solar and wind.

“How soon it happens depends on our ambition,” Darren says. He says other countries such as Germany have announced ambitious plans for green hydrogen, but Australia is ideally placed to produce the gas at a massive scale. “And it’s actually massive scale that’s needed to drive the cost down. If we try to be moderately ambitious, we just won’t get there. It requires real commitment.” 

But just as the ambition – and investment – required to unlock the potential of green hydrogen is massive, so too is the potential payoff in bringing the world closer to a clean energy future. The key, the experts agree, is to start now and aim high.