Morning Porridge, April 1 2022: Guest Post from Brett Moris – Would you like Hydrogen with That?
Brett Morris – guest contributor Would You Like Hydrogen with That?
If we are seriously considering a massive investment in nuclear to mitigate climate change, it might also be sensible to consider hydrogen too. Could hydrogen be a useful fuel source for a carbon free future too?
Hydrogen can be produced by the simple process of electrolysis; basically, running electricity through water. If you use renewable energy (wind, solar, tidal etc.) you get what is called green hydrogen i.e., hydrogen which is produced without using or including carbon. This is the best carbon-free fuel known to man.
Could we “decarbonise” our economies using hydrogen? If so, it would be a huge step forward in addressing climate change. If we simply add in the climate changes that are already “baked-in” by past actions, our climate is set to warm by between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius within a few decades (various assumptions give slightly differing answers as to when).
This level of warming is inconsistent with human civilisation. Meaning your descendants may have to live in a cave and wear animal skins, unless we change course. This is before we include step changes such a crossing climate “tipping points”, collapsing mid-Atlantic currents etc. If some of these happen, well, it’s going to get rather difficult. If so, is a hydrogen economy another option to help avoid climate meltdown?
The absurdly named Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is a serious Australian scientific organisation which has been at the forefront of scientific research in Australia for decades. The CSIRO has many serious scientific accomplishments to its credit. As just one example, if you have ever used Wi-Fi, you were using CSIRO technology.
The CSIRO issued a report, the ‘National Hydrogen Roadmap”, arguing that Australia can enable deep decarbonisation across the energy and industrial sectors by establishing a hydrogen industry. Further, an Australian hydrogen economy might also offer deep decarbonisation to Asian economies.
The CSIRO believe the technology now exists, or will exist shortly, to allow a sensible hydrogen industry to develop in Australia, powered by renewable energy. One example of such technology is that the CSIRO have patented technology to convert hydrogen to ammonia for easier long-distance transport to customers.
There is already an extensive ammonia shipping industry transporting ammonia to various countries, mainly for fertiliser production. Adding extra ammonia from an emerging hydrogen industry would be quite simple. It’s just a few more tankers and please don’t bump anything when you leave port thanks Captain.
Transportation, Storage & Conversion to Energy
We currently ship large amounts of liquified petroleum gas around the world in large refrigerated tankers. So, hydrogen being just another gas, we should just build specialised tankers to ship green hydrogen in a super-cold liquified state. Right?
Sadly, it’s not so simple. For long distance exports, it turns out to be better to ship ammonia, because –
- Energy density
- Existing supply chains, and
- Ammonia has potential to drive decarbonisation better than hydrogen itself.
Because of its low energy density by volume, hydrogen is best converted into a more energy dense state for long distance shipping, and ammonia appears to be the best option to achieve that. Assuming same sized vessels you can ship as much hydrogen with 2 ammonia shipments as with 3 hydrogen shipments.
Once again, economics dictates that we will probably ship hydrogen as ammonia or similar because ammonia is simply cheaper to ship. You can store it in a pressurised tank so you don’t need cryogenics and it’s only a tiny bit more expensive to make than hydrogen.
If you ask, how do we convert the ammonia back into hydrogen, the answer is often why bother? Ships are being fitted with ammonia powered fuel cells which can power the ship so the ship carries the ammonia, which also gives a zero-carbon fuel.
Also, the global market for ammonia is enormous, about 176 million tons per year, mostly used in food production. Producing dirty ammonia now released huge amounts of CO2 so simply replacing that dirty ammonia with green ammonia made from renewables will be an important step in decarbonising the world.
Ammonia can also be used as a fuel for power plants so industrial countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea can simply refit existing power plants to run on ammonia. And, just like that, a huge decarbonisation happens. Sure, it costs money but probably less than, say, one more huge typhoon or tornado.
None of this is simple or cheap and many technological challenges remain to be solved. But there is no compelling reason why the world could not shift to green ammonia being exported via ships to power and decarbonise entire economies. Then, it just comes down to the economics of “do we produce our own green ammonia or is it better and cheaper to import it from sun-rich lands?”
Could the Pilbara Decarbonise Asia?
Western Australia (WA) is a lot like California – but without annoying Americans. Clean white-sand beaches, unpolluted water, massive surfing, spectacular scenery and premium food and wine makes for a wonderful experience. WA is about one third of the Australian land mass. About 1,800 km North from the capital one comes to the Pilbara, a huge, dry region known for its red earth and vast mineral deposits. It is also a global biodiversity hotspot.
In the Pilbara, the wind almost always blows and the sun shines an awful lot. Most of the time the wind blows and the sun shines at the same time – giving a huge renewable energy source. This led to the concept of an Asian Renewable Energy Hub. The proposal is to develop the largest power plant in the world to supply renewable energy to Asia. The plant would produce 26 gigawatts of power from cheap and abundant renewable energy. The largest solar energy plant in the world today currently produces just 1.5 gigawatts.
Using the abundant renewable energy, the plant would electrolyse sea water to produce green hydrogen which could then be shipped to Asia. All they need is water and electricity to produce green hydrogen. A completely carbon free fuel.
Climate change makes things warmer and adds energy to storms, particularly typhoons. Asia is where most typhoons land so Asian governments are becoming increasingly interested in mitigating climate change. Their attitude appears to be that they will cheerfully buy green hydrogen from anyone who can supply it reliably; hopefully with a clear path to gradually lowering hydrogen costs over time.
The Pilbara is a hot, dry place with near constant winds and lots of sunshine. If the Asian Renewable Energy Hub is built, and if it proves technically and financially feasible, could we duplicate it elsewhere?
Looking around the world we can see that the top third of Africa is largely a hot, dry desert. It is also conveniently placed next to a potential customer – Europe, which is coming to realise that relying on Russian oil and gas may not be the best energy decision ever made.
Currently the Middle East supplies much of Asia’s energy via oil tankers. The entire Middle East is not short of sunshine so it too might come to duplicate the Pilbara concept and replace oil and gas with carbon free hydrogen. Between them the Middle East and Australia’s hydrogen hubs could deeply decarbonise Asian economies. It’s not a silly idea as most Asian energy comes in large tankers now so, changing oil to hydrogen might not be a huge concept change.
Finally – America. Frankly, American politicians never met an agricultural subsidy they didn’t like so it’s hard to imagine America duplicating an energy hub and moving away from ethanol, fracking and “drill baby, drill” in the near future. However, in time, as the tornadoes, floods and wildfires ramp up, and the costs of home insurance become unaffordable; who knows?
In time, even America might start to get serious about renewable energy and green hydrogen. If so, and if the technology works and is economically viable, we could largely decarbonise the Asian, European and American economies. If that happened, we would be deeply cutting carbon while showing other economies how to change to a carbon free or low carbon economy.
Finally, we should look at Singapore and shipping. A humongous amount of shipping goes through Singapore, a natural choke point. Australia could supply reliable hydrogen fuel supplies to Singapore so ships could refuel with a carbon-free fuel.
If Europe and America similarly made hydrogen fuel available to compliment the Singapore supply, we could theoretically decarbonise the world shipping industry. Depends a bit on the economics, technology, returns etc. of course.
Power generation accounts for about 25% of global carbon emissions, while shipping accounts for about 3%. Decarbonising these industries might allow us to reduce global carbon emissions by huge amounts; and it could be done quite quickly.
Fuel Cells Vs. Lithium Batteries
An electric vehicle (EV) is pretty much a big lithium battery and some electric motors with a few car systems added, like wheels. So why don’t we just use fuel cells in place of that big battery? Simple, right? Well, maybe not.
Let us acknowledge that EV’s and a hydrogen economy are both relatively new concepts and much technology has to be developed yet. The new technology may take us in strange and wonderful new directions. We should be prepared for surprises along the way.
To replace a battery with a fuel cell you have to strip out the battery and replace it with the fuel cell and the fuel source – hydrogen.
To get hydrogen fuel we have to transport the hydrogen in specialised trucks. It can be done but the gas has to be cooled to a liquid so we can refuel your hydrogen car in a few minutes. This takes more energy, specialised equipment, new technology and so on. As Bill points out, is so tiny it literally seeps through any containment vessel or piping. We need new tech.
By contrast, “refuelling” an EV only requires that you plug it and use renewable energy. If we convert power stations to run on green ammonia, the power is renewable, carbon-free and you can charge overnight. It doesn’t solve the problem of where we source Lithium from for batteries.
Scientific American estimate that the process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel cell conversion in a hydrogen car only leaves about 20% – 25% of the original energy to drive the car. But an EV would leave 75% – 80% of the original energy to drive you along – an EV is about three times more energy efficient.
Once again simple economics dictates that you will probably be offered an EV if you want to quickly decarbonise the economy. In time we can solve the technical challenges and give you a hydrogen powered car but, by then, will you bother to buy one?
Economics and consumer preferences probably mean that EV’s will be a more popular transport option in the short-term. In time, hydrogen powered cars will come along and the infrastructure to support them may develop too, so consumers may get a choice, but not today.
As the world wakes up to the challenges of recycling used batteries from EV’s, we consumers may come to demand hydrogen vehicles, and they work well. But the world will have to develop new technologies, build new supply lines, convert infrastructure etc. It probably cannot happen quickly, whereas you can drive off in an EV today.
There are about 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines operating in the United States, mainly to provide hydrogen to petroleum refineries and chemical plants. So, we know a bit about hydrogen infrastructure. More research is urgently required as this is a relatively new technology.
As a comparison there are 180,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States, so the hydrogen industry is in its infancy.
Piping hydrogen is a low-cost delivery method but the pipes are a high capital cost option because of the special needs of hydrogen. It can tend to embrittle the steel and welds in the pipeline and compressing the hydrogen is expensive. Research is urgently required into new materials which can withstand the pressures and temperatures of transporting hydrogen via pipelines. One potential new pipeline is a fibre reinforced polymer pipeline (FRP), but it’s not there yet.
One simple option in the short-term is to simply mix small amounts of hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines. There is no need to change the infrastructure up to about 15% hydrogen and hence no capital cost. It offers a useful carbon reduction at little cost; this is low hanging fruit and Asian economies will almost certainly do this quick conversion.
To pipe hydrogen in larger percentages, new pipelines have to be built which can withstand hydrogen’s pressure, temperature and other technical challenges. This is a high capital cost option, it will take many years, maybe decades, and the world needs to decarbonise now.
If you would like to buy hydrogen gas to power your stove or heater, it may never happen. The capital costs of building an entire new gas delivery pipeline and rolling out specialised consumer appliances to burn hydrogen make this unaffordable.
Almost certainly, economies will quickly convert power stations to run on green ammonia or hydrogen and offer you carbon free power. Consumers will be encouraged to insulate and refit houses with energy efficient appliances such as heat pumps, induction cooktops and so on. That we can all use carbon free power and switch entire economies over quickly – and speed is of the essence here.
Could It Work?
Whenever we introduce a new technology there are always risks. What is significant is that we now have a serious scientific organisation advising that “deep decarbonisation” of the Australian economy might be possible. This might also allow decarbonisation of Asian economies too.
They may even be right. The CSIRO have a great track record.
As typhoons, tornados, wildfires, “once-in-a-century” floods, droughts and other climate disasters accumulate it is becoming increasingly clear that we probably should investigate a hydrogen economy too.
If we are going to spend big on research into nuclear power, we probably should also do the same with hydrogen to see which gives the best outcome. It just makes sense to investigate all options.
(From Bill – Thanks for this Brett…)