The hydrogen economy

When the old is new – and doable

BEFORE THERE WAS Matt Damon in the film adaptation of The Martian, there was Cyrus Harding in Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island: a hero in the guise of an engineer. Stranded on a rocky outcrop in the ocean off the east coast of Australia, a century before Matt Damon was even born, Harding immediately sets out to ensure survival by putting into practice Damon’s later commitment to ‘science the shit out of this’. Once the beer is brewed, the gunpowder manufactured, the hydraulic sawmill in operation and an electric telegraph installed, there remains only one thing for Harding to do: lecture his companions in scientific principles and deliver TED-worthy talks on the future of humanity and its burgeoning energy needs.

Challenged to suggest an alternative to the coal that will ‘someday…be entirely consumed’, Harding’s suggestion is water.

‘Water!’ responds the sailor, Bonaventure Pencroft. ‘Water as fuel for steamers and engines! Water to heat water!’

‘Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements,’ replies Cyrus Harding,

‘and decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable laws, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Someday the coal-rooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. As long as the earth is inhabited it will supply the wants of its inhabitants, and there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.’

‘I should like to see that,’ observed the sailor.

‘You were born too soon, Pencroft.’

A global economy fuelled by hydrogen. In a book published in 1874. Like all of Verne’s big ideas, it seemed barely on the right side of impossible – although surely no less plausible than a cannon-shot voyage to the moon, or Captain Nemo’s all-electric submarine. And Cyril Harding’s prophecy, at least, had the benefit of well-established science to support it.

Hydrogen, the first element on the periodic table, was also one of the first to be isolated and named. It was probably first observed and recorded in the 1500s, albeit unknowingly, by a Swiss alchemist with the modest name of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, in the course of his experiments on metals. Big names of a different sort weighed in during the glorious early decades of the Enlightenment, when the giants of science regularly went to war on the topic of the composition of air. Significant progress would have to wait for the Englishman Henry Cavendish, who was the first to describe the properties of a substance he called ‘inflammable air’ in a scientific paper in 1766. He was also the first to demonstrate that the same gas, when ignited with pure oxygen, would produce only water…and energy in the form of a spark. (His other notable discovery, that this curious gas was extremely light, would prove very useful two decades later, when some of the first human flights were made in hydrogen-filled balloons.) Naming rights went to the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier, who proved definitively that water was composed of two elements he dubbed ‘hydrogen’ and ‘oxygen’ in 1785. By 1820, scholars were already proposing the idea that the energy from burning hydrogen could be harnessed as an alternative to coal-fired steam engines. The discovery that running an electrical current through water could easily split it into its two component parts made the idea of mass hydrogen production far more feasible.

By Verne’s day, the notion of a hydrogen-powered planet was ready to be born, needing only the imagination of a bestselling author to bring it to life.

The logic, at least on paper, was compelling. Energy is essential. Humans are voracious consumers. Hydrogen is abundant, albeit trapped in water and organic molecules. And water vapour, the by-product, is harmless. Who among Verne’s readers could doubt that the Cyril Hardings of the world would one day bring it about?

The five generations that followed proved the idea to be like Pencroft: born too soon. Like the novel that contained it, Verne’s hydrogen dream largely faded from view. We built the modern economy by burning hydro­carbons: petrol in cars, coal in power stations, gas in homes. We certainly made hydrogen, eventually in the tens of millions of tonnes every year, but not for use as a fuel. Instead, after briefly dallying with it for lifting airships (an idea scotched by the Hindenburg disaster), hydrogen became widely used as a feedstock in industrial processes, primarily to make ammonia for fertiliser and in refining oil into diesel and petrol. The only vehicles that ran on hydrogen were rockets, burning millions of litres to blast off into space. And who on Earth wanted a fuel best known for blasting rockets running through the gas mains into their homes?

But the hydrogen dream was never quite extinguished. In a 1923 speech to the Heretics Society in Cambridge, the British biologist JBS Haldane painted his vision for a renewable-energy economy powered by ‘rows of metallic windmills’ producing electricity for ‘electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen’ that would be stored, then recombined in ‘oxidation cells’ to produce electricity when needed. Whenever the primacy of fossil fuels was threatened, a new generation of true believers would be ready to reimagine the plan. Australians, by some curious whim of history, were usually among them.

We were there in the 1940s, when wartime interruptions to the oil supply prompted the Queensland Government to respond to the enthusiasm of Australian engineer JS Just by authorising the construction of a hydrogen plant. The thinking, it seems, was to use off-peak electricity to supply hydrogen fuel for trucks. The war ended, the price of petrol plummeted, and the hydrogen plan was quietly retired.

We were there again in the 1970s, when the oil shock helped to popularise the hitherto fringe ideas of John Bockris, then an academic based at Flinders University. It was Bockris who coined the term ‘hydrogen economy’, and Bockris who brought the concept into the academic mainstream at the first-ever global hydrogen energy conference in 1974. (Fittingly, he was honoured with the International Society for Hydrogen Energy’s Jules Verne Medal in 2000.) And as the decades progressed, Australians rallied to the emerging environmental imperatives, working through our universities and the CSIRO to explore the prospects for hydrogen as the ideal zero-carbon fuel.

At every rebirth, the basic problem was the same: the chemistry was simple; the economics were diabolical. That’s how the case presented to me when I set out my position in 2013 to a gala dinner packed with scientists and engineers.

‘Assume we were determined to cut emissions,’ I said. Hydrogen is clean-burning, but we’ve got to use energy to make it. There’d be no point burning coal to make the electricity for making hydrogen. So that leaves us with two options: making the hydrogen directly from coal or methane, with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), or splitting water using the electricity from solar and wind farms or hydroelectric dams. But the infrastructure build would be staggering, we haven’t got commercially proven methods for CCS or hydrogen compression and liquefaction, and there would be massive inefficiencies at every stage. And even if we tackle the problem of boosting supply, we’d be stuck unless we somehow created demand. No one is going to invest in a fleet of hydrogen trucks until there are hydrogen refuelling stations. And no one is going to pay for those stations without a critical mass of trucks. Chicken and egg.

‘Realistically,’ I proclaimed, ‘the hydrogen economy has no chance.’


NOW, IN 2019, I find myself a proponent, confident that hydrogen can play a significant role in the decades-long transition to the zero-emissions world.

Three factors combined to change my mind. Two of them are about costs.

The first is that the input costs for clean hydrogen production have fallen sharply. In the 1970s, when John Bockris put his radical ideas to paper, solar panels were in their infancy. They had one thing in common with liquid hydrogen fuel: both were made chiefly for NASA spacecraft. The price of oil could triple overnight, as it did in the oil shock of 1973, and solar hydrogen would still be un-investable.

Since that time, the price of solar panels has fallen by a factor of more than 500. The idea of harvesting sunshine to mine the water begins to make sense. The fifty-three multinational companies who’ve now signed up to the global Hydrogen Council – including Airbus, General Motors and Royal Dutch Shell – agree. Follow the money: investors are persuaded.

The second factor is the substantial improvement in utilisation costs. The rule of thumb for would-be disruptors could be Buckminster Fuller’s famous aphorism: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ In other words: leapfrog the status quo. Like many, I never expected to see hydrogen technologies that could genuinely compete on cost, efficiency and performance in my lifetime. I stand corrected.

Consider the Nikola One, a hydrogen-fuel-cell semi-trailer truck designed and manufactured by an audacious start-up in Arizona. Founded in 2014, the Nikola company borrowed its name from the great inventor Nikola Tesla – as did its most famous rival. The Nikola One has twice the horsepower and close to triple the acceleration up hills of a diesel competitor. You could drive from Sydney to Melbourne, and back again, on one tank of hydrogen fuel. It’s a seriously impressive truck. We’ll see them on the roads in a few years’ time.

Europe is already rolling out the first-generation hydrogen trains. They’re low-noise, zero emissions and cheaper to run, sacrificing nothing on speed or range.

And what could be more Australian than the barbecue? The world’s first flameless hydrogen barbecue was invented at the University of New South Wales. An Adelaide company, Heatlie, is already shipping hydrogen barbecues that work just like a conventional gas barbecue – minus the carbon dioxide emissions. While it’s not the most high-tech example of our Australian hydrogen R&D, it does provide a delicious taste of the many ways that hydrogen could slot into our lives.

The key technology for using hydrogen is the fuel cell, what JBS Haldane called an oxidation cell. It is a device that – without flames – combines oxygen from the air with hydrogen to produce electricity. The price of fuel cells has plummeted nearly tenfold in the last decade. It took decades to bring the technology to this point of commercial viability – decades of patient effort, much of it funded by governments, in the absence of an immediate path to market. Investors are now confident it won’t be long before they’ve passed the Buckminster Fuller test.

The third factor, and the one most influential in changing my perspective, is the emergence of Japan as a committed purchaser of hydrogen gas. Japan’s national mission is clear: to harness hydrogen as a fuel that can be used instead of natural gas for generating electricity, or instead of petrol and diesel for powering vehicles.

For Japan, the options to decarbonise are few. It is an energy-hungry economy almost completely reliant on imported coal, oil and liquid natural gas (LNG) – all of which produce carbon dioxide emissions when burned. Without the available land for solar and wind generation, suitable sites for hydroelectric dams or an appetite for a major expansion of nuclear power, Japan is destined to continue to import the bulk of its energy. One way to wean itself from emissions-producing fossil fuels would be to build an undersea cable from a country where renewable energy can be generated cheaply. However, the cost of the cable would be prohibitive, and it would make Japan dependent on the good intentions and continuous supply capabilities of the source country. The only other current option is to import clean hydrogen. For Japan, this represents a viable path to harnessing the renewable energy potential of other nations.

The obvious candidate to supply hydrogen is Australia, which has all the benefits of geographical proximity, abundant land, sun, wind, natural gas, coal and carbon sequestration sites, a highly regarded hydrogen R&D program, and a sterling reputation as a supplier of LNG. But it’s a race. Norway, Brunei and several Middle Eastern countries are also flexing their hydrogen muscles.

I had my first glimpse of the hard-headed determination behind the Japanese hydrogen push in April 2018, when I attended the launch of a $500 million hydrogen production facility in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. It’s a demonstration project, led by a consortium of Japanese companies, exploring the feasibility of converting our coal and water into separate streams of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The Japanese won’t buy our hydrogen if massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere during production, but a ten-year project in Victoria called CarbonNet has produced evidence that it will be possible to economically capture the carbon dioxide and bury it offshore, essentially forever. The aim of the demonstration project is to test the cost, extent of capture, and ease of this sequestration. I attended the launch with some doubts about the sheer ambition of the plan. I left with admiration for the strategy behind it. This was a multi-decadal commitment to changing the world.

That impression was confirmed when I led an Australian delegation to Tokyo later in 2018. There were no illusions about the obstacles to be overcome, not least of which was the question of transport. To liquefy hydrogen, it has to be cooled to below -250 degrees. That consumes a lot of energy, and it’s expensive. An alternative is to combine hydrogen with nitrogen to make ammonia, which is easily and commonly liquefied. The challenge is to convert it back to hydrogen cheaply and without using much energy in the energy-poor country that is importing the ammonia. We’re certainly moving closer to this point, but we haven’t cracked it yet.

But beyond that insight into the scale of the task, what struck me in Tokyo was the unanimity of purpose. Industry, government, researchers: all could see a significant pay-off for their children and grandchildren in overcoming these obstacles. Japan’s ambition was not merely to be a hydrogen consumer in a zero-emissions world; it was to develop and commercialise the hydrogen technologies that could extend the hydrogen economy across the globe. They offered Australia the chance to be the energy superpower at its heart. And I couldn’t help but note the strange coincidence in Jules Verne’s characters having ventured into our part of the world more than a century past to talk about a global hydrogen dream.

That dream is not an inevitability. Nor is Australia becoming the global hydrogen supplier of choice. If our potential is realised, it will be the outcome of planning and persistent effort sustained over decades. That effort, in turn, relies on public support.

There are many reasons for Australians to welcome the development of a hydrogen export industry, coupled with the introduction of hydrogen in a more limited way into our transport networks, industries and homes. On offer are jobs, with the bulk of them likely to be located in regional communities. Every state has significant hydrogen generation potential, a fact not lost upon their governments.

But goodwill is not a commodity that can be taken for granted. Clean hydrogen production at the export scale would require a substantial commitment of resources for new-build solar and wind farms. The communities that host that infrastructure are entitled to see the benefits. The public is also entitled to trust that the technology is safe. I said it myself in 2013: there are reasons to be wary of an invisible, odourless, explosive gas. But many substances in daily use are dangerous. Natural gas is dangerous, and we pipe it into homes. Electricity is dangerous, and it comes out of sockets in easy reach of crawling babies. Cars are dangerous, and we drive them in ever-increasing numbers. The role of government is to anticipate and manage those risks. For industry, that means having the discipline to ask for and accept a truly rigorous standard – a self-imposed speed limit. No short-term gain is worth the decades-long setback that an accident would likely impose.

There are useful lessons to be learned from the development of an ­industry at the core of our current prosperity: LNG. In the early 1960s, when Woodside gained the offshore exploration rights to a 367,000 square kilometre patch of the continental shelf off the north-west coast of Australia, few imagined that the industry would grow to the behemoth we know today. Then, all the difficulties of exploring and mining in seas between sixty and 3,000 metres deep, for which even baseline meteorological data was sparse, in an area prone to cyclones, with no suitable onshore construction facilities, and no offshore support vessels available in the southern hemisphere, were all too apparent.

The technologies, the skills and the infrastructure all had to be developed. At the same time, the community had to be persuaded that the development was safe. In the end, it took twenty-six years from receiving the exploration permit until the first drop of LNG shipped to Japan in 1989. The North West Shelf became Australia’s first LNG development, with total investment of close to $34 billion. And in November last year, we overtook Qatar as the world’s leading LNG exporter.

The highs and lows of building the LNG industry should inform us in mapping a pathway to a future hydrogen industry. As I journeyed from hydrogen scepticism to enlightenment, I met many fellow travellers on the path. I took my chance to draw together a dozen experts from industry, government and academia, in a travelling party we dubbed the Hydrogen Strategy Group. In early 2018, I briefed the then Commonwealth Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg on the group’s discussion, and he invited me to prepare a briefing statement for his August 2018 meeting with his state and territory counterparts.

And so there I was – once doubter, now proponent – delivering on behalf of the Hydrogen Strategy Group a report that expounded the opportunities, competitive positioning and reasons for an Australian role in the future hydrogen economy. The date was 10 August – 10.08. The atomic mass of hydrogen is 1.008. Cyril Harding surely cracked a smile.

In their final meeting in December 2018, the Council of Australian Governments unanimously invited me to lead the development of a national hydrogen strategy, which will be delivered in late 2019.

Building a hydrogen export industry will demand patience. It may well be that my generation was born too soon to see its full potential revealed. But we have made our commitment to plan the journey, to make the destination possible to attain, and to maximise the benefits for Australians along the way.

My children will tip their hats to Jules Verne.

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