Some 55 years ago, as I set out on my years of research on the catalytic activity of platinum electrodes, I watched my first bubbles of electrolytic hydrogen form on that beautiful metal. A keen hydrogen watcher ever since, I've watched it getting hot, and cooling down again, more than once. Right now it's hot. And to me that's a worry. Here's why.
Green hydrogen will be a huge new industry, they say. In February 2022 one report describes "a frenzy of interest in (Andrew Forrest's) plans to turn the iron ore company he founded into a global energy giant capable of producing 15 million tonnes of green hydrogen a year by 2030".
Forrest's Fortescue Future Industries FFI, a subsidiary of the giant iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group, says it's "taking a global leadership position in the renewable energy and green products industry by harnessing the world's renewable energy resources to produce renewable electricity, green hydrogen and other green industrial products such as green ammonia and green iron."
On the political front Australia's Federal and State Governments have a joint National Hydrogen Strategy with "a vision for a clean, innovative, safe and competitive hydrogen industry that benefits all Australians and is a major global player by 2030".The Feds say they're now investing $1.4 billion in building a green hydrogen industry.
Only weeks ago FederalOpposition leader Anthony Albanese, normally an enemy of fossil fuels, announced his Labor party's support for a 750 MW gas-fired power station atKurri KurriNSW, on condition that it runs on 30% green hydrogenby 2030, rising to 100% soon after.
Likewise, Squadron Energy, with ownership connections to Andrew Forrest and FFI, proposes a 660 MW dual-fuel (natural gas and green hydrogen) combined cycle gas turbine generator at Port Kembla NSW, running on 100% hydrogen by 2030.
This is a small sample of theproliferation in Australia of new hydrogen ventures and supporting organisations, both public and private. It is a global phenomenon. Hydrogen enthusiasm is reaching fever pitch, again.
Is this a healthy environment for sound policy development and business decision making? Let's have a closer look.
Hydrogen – what it is: Hydrogen is a gas, a chemical element contributing at least one atom to every basic molecule of importance in human existence – water, fossil fuels, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, etc. Hydrogen gas burns, just like the common fuels. But it boasts one big chemical advantage – the only combustion product is water. There's no carbon dioxide, the product nobody wants, as left behind by other fuels.
Already an industrial gas, about 75 million tonnes of hydrogen are used annually across the globe. About 95% of that is made from natural gas, which is mainly methane CH4. It's those four hydrogen atoms for each carbon atom that make methane such a good feedstock for hydrogen. Industrial hydrogen's main uses are in the petroleum refining, explosives and fertiliser industries. There are many other smaller but still vital uses.
Hydrogen – what it isn't: A common and dangerous misconception is that hydrogen is a "source of energy". It is difficult to know the extent to which that rookie error contributes to hydrogen's popular reputation. The fact is that hydrogen does not exist naturally. It cannot be a "source" of anything, especially energy. Every molecule of hydrogen used in the world is manufactured. That process uses energy. All of the energy content of today's hydrogen originated elsewhere.
What then is the value proposition underlying the hydrogen frenzy? This important question has no simple answer. Let's return to it after outlining some history.
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