Tried and true shapes something new
A few years ago, this issue popped up in Australia. Never to disappear again - as it already once did in the 1980s. At the time, oil prices dropped back down to a historical low and caused interest in a viable alternative, hydrogen, and more importantly the necessary support for research in order to pave its way and promote it, to wane.
Today, the word on everyone’s lips being whispered from industry to government, from consultancy to investment bodies and vice versa, is hydrogen. Hydrogen as a carrier of energy, as THE solution for long-term energy storage and for power to gas processes – and this on a vast scale.
One man who is fighting for this cause is Martin Hablutzel, Strategy Manager at Siemens Australia. To him hydrogen is more than sheer profit alone. “It is the right decision to commercialize green energy while at the same time securing Australia’s position as a global energy exporter”, he makes his case. Estimated to become the biggest energy exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world by next year, Australia is determined to protect this position. And hydrogen could well be the solution.
The scientists at CSIRO, an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, came to a similar conclusion. The experts developed a National Hydrogen Roadmap, a blueprint for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia. Their Chief Executive, Larry Marshall, is convinced that “Australia has a unique and urgent opportunity to turn significant natural resources, including coal, gas, and renewables like solar and wind energy, into a low-emissions energy product and ship it around the world – in some cases literally exporting Aussie sunshine.”
The actual process of producing hydrogen through electrolysis has been known to mankind since 1800. For more than 200 years now, the resource has always been a key element of scientific, civil and military inventions.
Today, however, a whole new perspective is putting the use of hydrogen into a new light. Considering that the share of renewables in the overall energy mix is increasing dramatically, hydrogen could well solve the dilemma of stabilizing the power grid while integrating fluctuating renewable energy sources at the same time. Here, hydrogen could serve as a long term energy storage device to compensate surplus or lack of wind and solar energy – both abundant resources in Australia.
In addition, hydrogen is not only a fuel. As the ideal energy carrier and a highly flexible resource, it can be used as a basis in a variety of fields and serve to eventually establish whole new industry branches around its possibilities. Looking at the mobility sector, the fuel cell technology is taking off as an alternative for classical fossil engines. Not to forget that power to gas applications increasingly focus on further refinement processes such as the production of ammonia, methane or ethanol.
A comprehensive study by the South Australian Government together with the consultancy Allen and Advisian and Siemens, one leading outcome was that hydrogen production technology is ready for commercial use: i.e. water electrolysis. (For more information, please see our Infobox.)
The trick question is what in fact raises the attractiveness of hydrogen today? And the straight forward answer is cheap renewables in combination with an electrolyzer on an industrial scale, which the Sylizer 300 from Siemens can offer. They form the perfect match for a solid business case to produce and commercially use hydrogen, particularly in Australia.
This technology is a plus for industry, people and the environment. “There is no alternative to hydrogen, once they have all smelled the coffee”, says Hablutzel, an engineer at heart. He clearly sees the possibilities hydrogen offers to modern society and is certain that hydrogen is the future.
In Australia things seem to be moving. Most recently, the Adelaide-based Australian Gas Infrastructure Group (AGIG) – Australia’s largest gas distribution business – announced the construction and operation of a power-to-gas demonstration plant – called Hydrogen Park SA (HyP SA) – which will produce hydrogen from renewable electricity, which will then be injected into the local gas distribution network to provide low-carbon gas to homes and businesses. The hydrogen production and distribution facility will use a 1.25MW electrolyzer to produce hydrogen from the grid, including excess rooftop solar.
“We are excited to demonstrate the key role hydrogen can play in decarbonizing gas consumption and the additional value electrolysis brings to the renewable electricity generation sector” Craig de Laine, GM People and Strategy at AGIG, sums up the effect of HyP SA. And so far everything seems to go according to plan. “Working with our partners, including Siemens and the SA Government, we are on track to meet project timelines and deliver the largest power-to-gas project in Australia. We believe that key learnings from HyP SA will enable AGIG and the wider gas industry in Australia to map out a pathway to fully decarbonise gas consumption in the longer term, consistent with our Gas 2050 Vision.”
The research of hydrogen solutions doesn’t stop at Australian borders, new pilot projects are being realized all over the world: The Mainz Energy Farm in Germany, with a high-pressure PEM electrolyzer, can ramp up to its full capacity of up to 6MW in a matter of seconds. And in Linz, Austria, a consortium is currently constructing the world's largest pilot plant for the production of "green" hydrogen, featuring Siemens electrolyzer technology. Clearly, Australian projects allow plenty of room for development.
“It’s the pilot projects – and we certainly need a lot more of those – that will vault hydrogen into the commercial phase”, Hablutzel declares. In this process, Siemens plays a more complex role than merely offering a state-of-the-art product.
One prerequisite is the awareness that all sides will have to invest, if Australia wants to tap into the advantages hydrogen has to offer. “We at Siemens will stand our ground by advancing the business case. We are ready to further refine the electrolyzer technology for scale projects to fully support the commercialization of this tremendously valuable gas. In addition, we offer full service contracts to every customer. This is the time to bring ingenious ideas to the table. Our long company history and tradition has taught us that it ingenuity is the lifeblood for technical advancement. And in this case the ultimate aim is emission-free energy for everyone”, Hablutzel concludes. And so the story will unfold he believes.
The available technology on the market today, the SYLIZER 300 from Siemens is a proton-exchange membrane electrolyzer. It splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current. The extracted hydrogen is then turned into a liquid under great pressure and at very low temperatures up to -250 Grade Celsius.
Taking a closer look, electrodes are attached on both sides of the proton-exchange membrane. Voltage is applied to the electrodes causing the water to decompose into oxygen, hydrogen ions, and free electrons. The membrane only allows the hydrogen ions to pass through. When they arrive on the other side, they encounter the free electrons with which they combine to form hydrogen.
The good news is that the technology has low maintenance needs and the hydrogen is carbon dioxide-free and already very clean, with no need for cleaning. No hazardous substances or acids are used for the process – consequently, reducing the risk for operators as well as increasing the lifetime for such a system.
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