A hydrogen project in the Latrobe Valley that is tapping into the abundant reserves of brown coal long used to produce electricity could be a game-changer for energy generation in Australia and internationally.
Federation University Australia researchers have been awarded $1.5 million in funding to support the project, partnering with Australian Carbon Innovation to evaluate the performance of a hydrogen production plant that is now under construction. The research aims to evaluate gasification of Victorian brown coal for hydrogen production as an alternative to combustion in a traditional boiler to produce energy.
A key component of any future hydrogen production from brown coal gasification is the efficient capture and storage of carbon dioxide (CO2 by-product) that will ensure the hydrogen is low in greenhouse gas emissions and will complement intermittent renewable hydrogen.
Associate Professor Vince Verheyen, from the Carbon Technology Research Centre, said reliance on renewables to generate hydrogen would mean the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to one that is hydrogen-based would be a long way off.
He said many more wind turbines and solar panels would need to come online in Australia to drive a hydrogen economy, but the limited number of these, and their reliance on ideal weather conditions to work effectively, would not generate enough energy to allow full-scale hydrogen production.
“We are making hydrogen from a fossil fuel. Mining coal isn’t sustainable, but the advantage of going this way is it promotes us transitioning to renewable hydrogen in the future. We will be able to produce a lot of hydrogen in one place at a fairly low cost and that then enables the development of a supply chain,” Associate Professor Verheyen said.
“We need to get it away from where it's manufactured and look to where it's going to be used, and that's going to cost a significant amount of money developing the pipes for refuelling stations for hydrogen-fuelled cars and things like that. It's a chicken-and-egg situation because it’s very difficult to have hydrogen cars if you haven't got filling stations for them, and you're not going to build filling stations unless you've got the hydrogen cars.
“If we use a very energy-rich and cheap-to-mine source of carbon in the form of brown coal, the energy from that can be used to split water and that's where the hydrogen comes from. Then we have to manage the CO2 emission from that reaction, so we get the energy but it means there's a carbon dioxide penalty and fortunately for us, here in Latrobe Valley, CarbonNet have determined very good storage capability for the CO2 within the nearby Pelican field in Bass Strait.”
The CO2 will be stored in porous rocks under an impermeable rock layer in the same way that natural gas has been trapped for millions of years. Its reactive nature means the CO2 will slowly dissolve, mineralising into the rock over a timeframe of 20 to 50 years. The rocks can store the CO2 for tens of thousands of years.
Another key element of the project is the creation of jobs for a region in transition. Associate Professor Verheyen said if the plant got to full commercial scale, hundreds of high-value jobs would be created. The hydrogen production and CO2 capture/storage facilities are large chemical plants using cutting-edge technology and will employ many skilled people.
The gasification pilot plant, located at AGL’s Loy Yang facility, will be the first of its size in the world, built to produce and transport clean hydrogen from the Latrobe Valley to Japan via a hydrogen energy supply chain. The project, worth about $500 million, is being delivered by a consortium of Japanese companies with the support of the Victorian, Commonwealth and Japanese governments and AGL.
Federation University’s Carbon Technology Centre researchers will assess hydrogen samples, by-product composition, production efficiency and energy usage. They will also provide analysis of results to inform testing conditions and decision-making to develop an understanding of hydrogen production from brown coal.
Associate Professor Verheyen, who has an analytical chemistry background and started his career working on the structure of brown coal and other Australian coals, said looking for alternative uses of brown coal was vital as the world moved away from high-polluting energy generation.
“My view is this coal is too precious to just burn. We’re getting away from just burning wet brown coal to boil water, to make steam and then turn the steam into electricity — we all know those days are over,” he said. Associate Professor Vince Verheyen
“This is one great opportunity, particularly with CarbonNet Project managing any CO2 from a future plant, as gasifying brown coal is a lot better environmentally and technically than burning it. This is because what you're working with is a high-pressure concentrated gas system, and that lends itself to CO2 capture quite easily compared to flue gas. “
Hydrogen production at the plant is expected to begin in September.