Hydrogen fuel in Queensland – what is next?

Author:Mr Andrew Corkhill
Profession:Cooper Grace Ward

There is increasing interest in the development of Australia's hydrogen industry, bolstered by some early wins and growing investment into research and development. Queensland is well placed to embrace hydrogen technology and the economic, environmental and social benefits it is likely to bring.

What is hydrogen? Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe. It is colourless and odourless and its potential for use as a clean energy source has seen its popularity increase rapidly in the alternative energy industry.

Hydrogen fuel is ideal for widespread use in houses, vehicles and other applications and it has the potential to be commodified as an export product. When burned with oxygen to create energy, its only by-product is water.

How is hydrogen produced? Hydrogen is typically found as a component of molecules like water. To be used as a fuel source, it needs to be extracted from these molecules. This can be achieved through various methods including thermal natural gas reforming and electrolysis.

Thermal natural gas reforming involves the reaction of steam with natural gas to produce hydrogen. A key challenge with this reaction is that a by-product is the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. However, technologies that allow for the storage of that carbon dioxide are emerging, which would make this an extremely low-emissions hydrogen-production process. Queensland has existing access to natural gas, putting the state in an ideal position to produce hydrogen fuel.

The electrolysis process involves the splitting of water molecules to make hydrogen and oxygen. This is carried out by a device called an electrolyser, which may be driven by solar or wind power. The hydrogen can then be used as fuel by, for example, delivering it to consumers through existing natural gas pipelines. Alternatively, it can be converted into a transportable form, shipped domestically or overseas and then reconverted to its fuel form.

A potential limitation of this process is that it requires significant water input. However, solutions are emerging. For example, co-locating hydrogen fuel facilities and waste water treatment facilities allows waste water to be used for hydrogen production, while the oxygen by-product can be used to enhance processing efficiency in the treatment facility. Queensland has an enviable capacity to produce renewable energy through solar power that could be harnessed to facilitate hydrogen fuel production.

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