A hydrogen reality check – part one

In my column last month, I explained the need for Australian governments to develop an all-encompassing ‘net zero emissions’ greenhouse gas plan, one that outlines a pathway forward for each industry and for each State and Territory.

To highlight the size of the problems and challenges associated with this very complex issue, I detailed some research findings from Europe and the electricity supply infrastructure that would need to be built if countries like Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom were to fully embrace a shift to e-mobility for their fossil fuelled vehicle fleets.

I also detailed the similar task faced in Australia if we were to switch to electric powered vehicles.

The examples used, were based upon a move from fossil fuel (petrol, diesel and gas) powered cars, trucks and busses, to electric vehicles powered by electricity gained from the respective country’s power grid, this being the hope portrayed by many media commentators, globally and in Australia.

This led to some comments and feedback, suggesting that ‘plug-in’ electric vehicles, is not the only potential pathway to a carbon neutral future. I agree one hundred per cent with those comments!

It has always been the Truck Industry Councils (TIC) position that our governments, Federal, State and Territory, in Australia, should not attempt to pick ‘winners’ in the ‘net zero’ emissions race, but in fact offer impartial and objective financial and regulative incentives designed to allow many different technologies to be explored and developed.

Most of those who made comment, proposed hydrogen as the ‘universal solution’ to a ‘net zero emissions’ future for vehicles, and perhaps hydrogen will be — in time.
However, hydrogen is not the panacea that is being currently touted by much of the mainstream media, at least not in the short term. While hydrogen is the universe’s most abundant element, here on Earth it doesn’t naturally occur pure in nature, rather it must be extracted from another compound.

The most common technique is to extract hydrogen from water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (H2O). Doing this is fairly simple, however, this requires energy, a lot of energy. I will discuss this in more detail below, but let’s first look at a few of hydrogen’s disadvantages. Due to its small molecular size, hydrogen can permeate metals, making them brittle and leading to premature failure of pipes and tanks.

This makes hydrogen difficult to contain and store. It is also difficult to transport, as hydrogen is naturally a gas and takes up a lot of space. While hydrogen can be compressed to a smaller volume, this requires a lot of energy.

Tony McMullan, TIC CEO.

Finally, hydrogen is 20 times more explosive than petrol, hence the safe handling and use of hydrogen is a significant concern.

Today, hydrogen is most commonly used by the oil refining industry and to produce ammonia fertilisers.

It is typically produced using heat and chemical reactions to release hydrogen from organic materials such as fossil fuels. But this is enormously polluting.

For a colourless gas, hydrogen gets referred to in very colourful terms, depending on how it is produced:

• BROWN hydrogen is produced using coal where the emissions are released to the air.
• GREY hydrogen is produced from natural gas where the associated emissions are released to the air.
Both these processes are VERY CO2 intensive.
• BLUE hydrogen is produced from natural gas, where the emissions are captured using carbon capture and storage.
This process would roughly halve the amount of CO2 produced, but is not commonplace.
• GREEN hydrogen is produced from electrolysis powered by renewable electricity and could largely be free of CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, GREEN hydrogen currently accounts for less than one per cent of total global hydrogen production, according to a June 2020 report from USA Energy Consultants Wood-Mackenzie.

Then there is the cost of hydrogen production. Brown, grey and blue hydrogen cost about AU$2 per kilogram (though the price varies depending on where it is produced), while green hydrogen is around AU$4 per kilogram.

One kilogram of diesel, that is about 1.2 litres, costs well less than AU$1 to produce, I am comparing production costs here, not what you and I pay once governments add their taxes.

At AU$4/kg, green hydrogen has some way to go to be cost-competitive with diesel, despite having an energy density just over twice that of diesel.

Now you may ask, how do we use this gas to power cars and trucks? And when will we see such vehicles gracing our roads in significant numbers and greening our planet? Well, those are questions that I will have to answer another day, as I have exhausted my word limit for this month.

Tony McMullan
CEO, Truck Industry Council