Hydrogen: abundant, emission free and the future of transport

The only way to meet the energy needs of the future without sacrificing standards of living, or undermining the economy, is by planning for an orderly transition that embraces science and technology as the stepping stones to the future we want.” Dr Alan Finkel, Chief Scientist

Twelve percent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the cars that you and I drive every day – but we could reduce that number to zero.

The emissions-free vehicles market is expanding – and it is expanding beyond the well-known battery electric vehicle (BEV) market into hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

Unlike conventional cars, hydrogen FCEVs are not powered by internal combustion engines. Instead of burning the hydrogen, fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to create an electric current, which in turn powers the vehicle – it is efficient, and the only by-product is water vapour.

And while most hydrogen is currently produced from fossil fuels, an emissions-free process called  renewable electrolysis is growing in prominence. This is where renewable electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas – the reverse of fuel cell technology.

Refuelling and range

FCEVs also have significant advantages over BEVs – they are faster to refuel and can travel a lot further in distance. Based on specifications provided by FCEV manufacturers, 4.4 to 6.3 kilograms of hydrogen gas can stored in FCEVs available today, which allows for a driving range of up to 430 to 600 kilometres.[1] Want to refill your FCEV? Fill it up within minutes at a hydrogen refuelling station, which is similar to current fossil fuels; a BEV would take at least half an hour to recharge.[2] Want to extend the driving range of your FCEV? Install a second hydrogen tank to the vehicle. In contrast, BEVs would need a whole new additional battery.

Cost of operation

Our H2City tool developed for ARENA in association with the CSIRO, allows the estimation of the costs of converting every vehicle in an Australian community to FCEVs on a per kilometre basis, factoring in capital, fuel and other operating costs.

As a demonstration, we looked at the following scenario:

  • Eight percent of a community’s household adopt FCEVs by 2030 and there will be 100 percent uptake by 2050.
  • Hydrogen is produced onsite at refuelling stations using solar-powered electrolysers.
  • There is no cost involved in transporting hydrogen from production source to refuelling stations as production is onsite.

The results are fascinating. Using inputs provided by the CSIRO, the per kilometre cost of running a FCEV is $1.10 in 2030, including capital and operating costs, which is almost twice the cost of running an internal combustion engine at $0.60 per kilometre but as adoption increases and renewable electricity costs decline, in line with CSIRO projections of inputs, hydrogen cars will become a lot more affordable.

By 2050, the cost of running a hydrogen car falls, predicted to decrease by 80 percent to just $0.20 per kilometre. This is a third of today’s cost of a standard internal combustion car, notwithstanding the potential for the price of petrol to continue to increase.

Technological progress and innovation

The potential for environmentally friendly passenger cars to become so cheap, will provide obvious benefits to the environment and our hip-pockets – but it does rely on successfully upgrading infrastructure to support this type of car. Petrol stations might have to be adapted to store hydrogen in the same manner that some now store liquefied natural gas.

South Korea, China and Japan have already adopted nationwide strategies for promoting FCEVs. Whilst cities such as San Francisco and Melbourne are dipping their toes and building pilot refuelling stations.

To add to this, vehicle manufacturers such as Toyota, Hyundai and Nikola Motor are investing in not just hydrogen cars, but also long-distance hydrogen trucks and buses. In December last year the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier ship was launched in Japan.

Energy security

Environmental and potential financial savings aside, investing in FCEVs provides national security benefits and fuel security. Australia currently imports 90 per cent of our fuel and has less than three months’ supply in reserve – but we have the potential to produce hydrogen at a massive scale, with the World Energy Council identifying Australia as a “giant” with potential to become a “world key player”. The Commonwealth Government has already outlined its plans to rely on hydrogen to improve Australia’s energy security. Being able to produce our own fuel domestically to keep the country moving allows us to better safeguard the Australian economy.

And we now have the commitment, with the National Hydrogen Strategy unanimously adopted at a meeting by the Commonwealth, State, and Territory Governments late last year.

The strategy sets a path for Australia to become a major global player in the hydrogen industry by 2030 through removing market barriers, ensuring regulatory consistency and building international trade partnerships.

In the words of our Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, “We truly are at the dawn of a new, thriving industry.”

[1] Based on specifications for the Daimler GLC F-Cell, Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo and ix35 and Honda Clarity

[2] https://www.tesla.com/en_AU/supercharger

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