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Can you really make green hydrogen out of dirty Australian coal?

Whatever happens in the car industry some vehicles are likely to end up being powered by pure hydrogen or some other hard fuel. Electricity grids may also use it to store winter fuel. But Japan has split from the rest of the planet in believing that hydrogen would be THE fuel to replace petroleum, for all cars, but in the face of rising agreement that EVs are the way forward, it is rapidly revising its stance. Until that is, Australia has come to its apparent rescue.

Just how real is such a move really? Australia, rich in all sorts of coal, wants to try taking coal out of the ground, burning it inside a converted coal plant, and for each 160 tons of coal burned, three tons of hydrogen are produced along with 100 tons of carbon dioxide. On the surface of it, it is insanity, but it may prove to be one of many routes to creating “green hydrogen,” and putting it to work.

We have heard of electrolysis from water, supposedly the most efficient process for creating hydrogen, but not yet seen at scale, and extracting hydrogen out of natural gas which involves some carbon capture, but taking hydrogen from coal turns it into a massive carbon capture project and these are always fraught with danger.

Globalsyngas.org says there are already 272 gasification plants operating, and 74 further plants being built. Some are used to create ammonia, others make methanol, but a number start out with coal and simply throw off many disparate elements – hydrogen, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulates, as well as carbon dioxide.  Many of the coal plants that uses coal in a gas form are being built in China, along with one or two in the US – they boast they are more efficient, give off less CO2 for the same amount of energy, and that carbon capture could absorb the rest.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy has supported moves like this in the US, and says it has the ingredients of advanced coal-to-hydrogen with carbon capture, utilization, and storage. Interestingly none of the US gasification plants actually bothered capturing all of the carbon, they simply play with that part of the technology, but because it is not illegal to release the carbon into the air.

Chemically it is fairly straightforward – coal varies immensely in construction,  but the idea is usually to produce power, liquid fuels, chemicals, and hydrogen all in one pass. Hydrogen is produced by first reacting coal with oxygen and steam under high pressures and temperatures to form synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

Impurities are then removed and the carbon monoxide reacted with steam through the water-gas shift reaction to produce additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is removed by a separation process, and the highly concentrated carbon dioxide stream can subsequently be captured and stored – theoretically.

This is the coal industry’s way of “refusing to die” and countries like japan, which embrace the idea of hydrogen as the future fuel, rather than electricity, are simply supporting the continued burning of coal, and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, until carbon credit pricing and more efficient carbon capture turn the tide and most gasification projects become honest. The industry itself admits that CO2 leaks throughout the process and as of now it is unclear how much of its gets into the atmosphere. We are betting a lot.

Also the cost of using a cryogenic process to separate oxygen from air helps make this process too expensive.

We have read how now Australia has voted in the incumbent coal-loving government, that it is set to output close to 17% of global CO2 emissions simply by not listening to world opinion, and its first act was to license a new coal mine, to ship coal to India. Emissions in Australia are arelady rising rapidly since its election.

Australia is on track to miss its Paris targets hugely and emissions from electricity generation were up 8.2% on the previous quarter after three consecutive quarters of decline.

So bringing a hydrogen gasification process to Victoria in a $350 million experiment to scale hydrogen production, is one last throw of the dice for Japan, that has insisted on a pure hydrogen economy, preferring it over electricity to drive all vehicles. This will of course kill its car export market stone dead, and it will eventually have to take EVs on board, and most Japanese car markers are ignoring government plans for a hydrogen economy.

What is even more worrying is that this experiment is based on really low-grade coal creating an even larger economic issue for CO2 disposal. Presumably the coal is dug up, the hydrogen removed and then it is returned to where it came from, back down the mine.

Japanese companies led by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and including Marubeni, Iwatani and J-Power, have been instrumental, with the aid of the Japanese government in the creation of the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain.

And around the world pure lithium ion batteries are not really being considered to power heavy lorries and trucks quite yet, and so there is clearly some room for hydrogen as a fuel for some time to come. Of course, the best idea we have heard yet is to raise $1 billion, build a 100 turbine floating wind farm, and use the electricity and electrolysis to turn seawater into hydrogen and other chemicals, at sea, some of which can be turned into ammonia to replace “bunker” fuel, the carbon rich residue from making oil, which is used to power most ships globally. The hydrogen can then be stored and sold.

A process like that will likely be in place in the 6 to 8 year’s timeframe, and will undercut the pricing on this coal based method of creating hydrogen.

First exports of Australian hydrogen from coal to Japan are expected in the second half of next year, arriving just before the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Australia’s Resources Minister went on record saying the project could be an important step in creating a new industry which could be worth $2 billion a year if the trial is successful and internationally, the hydrogen industry could quite easily become a $2 trillion industry by 2020, or at least that’s what the Hydrogen Council thinks. Let’s hope that that neither of those two outcomes happen.

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