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Hydrogen, the clean green energy fuel

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Queensland government has announced a $19million Queensland Hydrogen Industry Strategy 2019-24. Gladstone – already a leading Australian energy hub – could become a hydrogen energy hub as well

I spoke at the October 10 2019 Gladstone Engineering Alliance industry conference on the future of the hydrogen economy. There has been discussion about the hydrogen economy for many years and yet progress has been slow.

Back in1923 British scientist JBS Haldane imagined a network of hydrogen-generating windmills powering the UK. But nothing came of it. In 1970 South African scientist John Bockris first used the term "hydrogen economy" and described what a solar-hydrogen-powered world could look like. But again nothing came of it.


I first encountered the hydrogen economy idea via the 2002 book by American business thinker Jeremy Rifkin: The Hydrogen Economy: the creation of the worldwide energy web and the redistribution power on earth. He argued that much as oil had transformed the 20th century, so hydrogen could be just as revolutionary in the 21st. For example, individuals and communities could be both producers and consumers of their own hydrogen and electricity.

The following year the Australian government hosted an international conference at Broome, Western Australia, to discuss hydrogen economy. Some of the power could be generated from Kimberley tidal power plants and then distributed across the continent by an expanded version of the existing gas pipeline network.

In 2004 the WA state government had a three-year trial of hydrogen buses in Perth. It was part of a 10-city experiment (Perth's was the only one in southern hemisphere).

But reality has not matched all that optimism. The predictions made by Rifkin in 2002 and the Australian conference organizers in 2003 have not come to pass.

If Gladstone is going to be any more successful than the previous experiments, it will need to address five major issues. First, there is the hydrogen fuel tank problem. High pressure tanks are a way of doing so but they need to be made small enough to fit inside a car. (They work on buses because there is a lot of roof space to use),

Second, there has to be encouragement of fuel cell vehicles. Some private vehicle are under construction but people are often slow to trade in old models. The 2019 G20 (group of 20 richest countries) conference, hosted by Japan, contained examples of what Japan is already doing in the hydrogen economy. Germany has its first hydrogen-fuelled train on the tracks. But we are still in early days.


Third, there will need to be the conversion of fuelling infrastructure for hydrogen. There has to be a network of refuelling stations across the country.

Fourth, we will need to ramp up hydrogen production. Ironically hydrogen is one of the most widespread elements in the universe but rarely appears in its pure form. It has to be extracted – and this in itself consumes fuel. Hence the interest of using renewable energy to generate the electricity and then hydrogen to store and carry it.

Fifth, there has to be a public relations campaign to sell the hydrogen economy. "Hydrogen" has many negative connotations – such as the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster in New Jersey, USA (where the hydrogen caught fire as it was landing and killed about a third of the passengers in the explosion), and of course the 1945 hydrogen bomb.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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