Australia’s bid to be the green hydrogen superpower

Sam Hawley: Hi, I’m Sam Hawley, coming to you from Gadigal Land. This is ABC News Daily. You probably know a bit about hydrogen from your science lessons at school. But you’re about to hear a lot more about it. As Australia embarks on a massive push to become the world’s hydrogen superpower. The hope is the element will soon be fuelling everything from cars to passenger jets as the world races to switch off fossil fuels. Today, ABC business reporter Rachel Pupazzoni on how Australia became a leader in the field and why it could result in our next investment boom. Rachel, you’ve recently been visiting Korea and it gave you an opportunity to have a look at what they’ve been doing when it comes to hydrogen. So just tell me about that. Sam One of the.

Rachel Pupazzoni: Most obvious things was when we visited a refuelling station, we’d been driving about an hour out of the capital, Seoul, on the way to our next destination, and we stopped over to refuel. And it was kind of broken up into different parts. You had your typical fuel stations that we see everywhere, you know, with petrol and diesel. And then there was this big section for electric vehicles and with plasma screens and it looked really high tech. And then off to the side was this sort of lone fuel pump, and it had the letters H2 written on it. So I knew that that was hydrogen and very different to the other fuel pumps that we saw dotted around that refuelling station.

Sam Hawley: Yeah, a bit. And I’ve never seen an H2 pump in Australia, I must say.

Rachel Pupazzoni: Yeah, I’ve never seen one, but we have a handful of them dotted throughout the country. But the reason why we don’t have so many of them is we just don’t really have hydrogen cars. In fact, there’s only two models that can be driven here, and that’s sort of by special order under special circumstances. So we just don’t see them on the road. We obviously do have electric vehicles and we’re seeing the demand for those kinds of cars increasing. But interestingly, hydrogen cars can actually get you a lot further. So refuelling a hydrogen car, which takes literally five minutes, which just boggles the mind. Yes. When you compare it to EVs. So it’s a lot quicker to refuel and they can go a lot further. They can go up to 600km, whereas the typical EVs that we have in Australia at the moment 300-400km. So a lot further on a on a hydrogen vehicle.

Sam Hawley: So before they have to refuel, that sounds pretty handy actually in a place like Australia of course, but the Koreans, they’re well advanced of us on this front aren’t they.

Rachel Pupazzoni: Yeah, that’s right. They’ve got about 30,000 hydrogen powered cars on Korean roads. Still a minimal market there, but clearly much more advanced than what we’ve got here because as I said, you just can’t buy them here. Readily available.

Sam Hawley: Okay. So, Rachel, before we go on, we better unpack what a hydrogen vehicle is and how it works. But even more simply, what is hydrogen? Just remind me of that. I’ve forgotten from my school days.

Rachel Pupazzoni: Yeah. So hydrogen, I guess the easiest and most readily accessible application is as water. Most people I think, know H2O, which is two hydrogen atoms attached to one oxygen atom. So to get the hydrogen separate from the water, there’s a big process called electrolysis, which separates the hydrogen from the oxygen. You apply this electrical current to water that splits the hydrogen from the oxygen, and then you capture those two different gases. But that has to happen at -250°C. So that’s pretty complicated. And then to keep it at that temperature is also challenging. The reason why we’re in a good position to be able to do this is because one of the ways of powering that process, that electrolysis process, is through things like wind and solar. And so obviously we’re a pretty big country. That’s pretty sunny. A lot of the time. So we’ve got access to capture that solar and that wind. But that obviously requires a separate process to capture the energy that way. And then you apply that energy to the electrolysis process, separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. So it’s not simple, but it’s something that we can do here.

Sam Hawley: Yeah, sure. And if that process is undertaken with wind and solar, as you say, that makes it green hydrogen. And that’s key, isn’t it? And I can see that Australia could be one of the leaders in the market by the end of the decade in this field. And you know, Joe Biden, he’s pretty interested in us now. You know, he was chatting about this with Anthony Albanese at the G7 recently.

Joe Biden, US President: This is a huge step from our perspective, a huge step forward in our fight against the climate crisis. And I want to thank you for your strong leadership and your partnership in this challenge.

Rachel Pupazzoni: That’s right. So Joe Biden has declared while he was in Japan for the G7 that climate and energy will become that third pillar of the Australia-US alliance in all.

Joe Biden, US President: Politics may be local, but our friendship is permanent. Absolutely. Thank you.

Rachel Pupazzoni: So that is a clear indication as well from the Australian Government that it is looking at this energy source we’ve had so much talking about up till now wind and solar and wave energy and all these different things and this is I guess the next step in the process.

Anothony Albanese, Prime Minister: And today what we’ve done is add a new element to that alliance up front, very clearly, unequivocally climate action because carbon.

Sam Hawley: So what else can we use this hydrogen energy for? Yeah.

Rachel Pupazzoni: So just like any other energy source, it will have multiple applications. So it could be a substitute for natural gas that we already have in homes.

Jim Chalmers, Treasurer: The hydrogen that’s created will then be used to displace things like gas used to power your homes, to heat your homes, to do your cooking.

Rachel Pupazzoni: It could power other transport vehicles, right? Not just cars. We could be seeing it in trucks, in container ships.

Reporter: Hydrogen may one day power, colossal freight ships. Many are thirsty for the fuel of the future, but also.

Rachel Pupazzoni: As an energy source to fuel other processing facilities. Manufacturing facilities.

Reporter: Green hydrogen manufacturing is coming to central Queensland.

Andrew Forrest, CEO Fortescue Metals Group: It’s working. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Rachel Pupazzoni: Anywhere you need energy. Hydrogen could be applied.

Sam Hawley: Okay. Yeah. I even see reports that it could be used one day in the future to fuel aeroplanes, which would be a bit exciting.

Reporter: The search for a greener way of flying is underway. This hydrogen plane could be taking paying passengers within three years.

Sam Hawley: If we, Rachel, are pretty good at converting hydrogen into energy because we have so much sun and wind. Why is it that we don’t already have more hydrogen cars here?

Rachel Pupazzoni: Yeah. So I guess there are risks associated with it and the technology is still being developed. You’re creating a gas and it is very, very flammable. There are risks associated with it. It requires, as I said, a lot of energy to create the hydrogen, to separate it from water. And so that technology is still being refined and being, I guess, improved upon. And then, of course, the other challenge is once you’ve done that process to separate, it is the storage and keeping it at -250 degrees. Say we exported it to Korea, it would be crossing the equator and you have this issue when you cross the equator. Obviously, the temperature warms up and that provides even more of a challenge to keep the hydrogen at that -250°C temperature. So they’re trying to work out, I guess, better ways to ensure capturing that hydrogen and keeping it so that you’re not losing so much. So it’s I guess economics is coming into it as well.

Sam Hawley: Yeah, there’s complexities to it, but we can see I mean, leaders, world leaders are very interested in this now, aren’t they? The Albanese Government in the Budget a little while ago allocated $2 billion to accelerate the green hydrogen industry.

Jim Chalmers, Treasurer: Australia’s biggest opportunity for growth and prosperity is the global shift to clean energy. That’s why in tonight’s budget we are investing $2 billion in a new hydrogen head.

Sam Hawley: So we’re moving in that direction, aren’t we?

Rachel Pupazzoni: We’re moving away from fossil fuels, and there’s so much pressure from investment companies, from superannuation funds on these sort of existing fossil fuel companies to move in that direction. For example, Andrew Forrest, Fortescue Metals Group has its subsidiary, Fortescue Future Industries, which itself has invested about $1 billion into researching these renewable energy sources.

Andrew Forrest, CEO Fortescue Metals Group: Change happens in two ways gradually, then suddenly the change is now and it’s sudden. The only question is will Australia be part of it in time?

Sam Hawley: See Andrew Forrest, his intention is to produce enough green hydrogen to power the equivalent of 60 million diesel cars by 2030. So that’s a big ambition, but it seems like we’re in a pretty good position here to be providing this hydrogen to the world. Could this be our next mining boom?

Rachel Pupazzoni: It could be. So the former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, who’s still on the board now and is their ambassador when it comes to renewables, Elizabeth Gaines, She’s really keen to see hydrogen develop and in fact, she thinks it could be as important to the Australian economy as iron ore has been. Well I certainly see a future where hydrogen and and the export of renewable energy will be as important as iron ore. Other commodities and LNG have been to the Australian economy and look at the contribution. I’ve spoken to analysts who sort of examine these topics and one of them is Vivek Dhar from Commonwealth Bank is their mining expert. Analysis by Vivek Dhar shows that 40 per cent of the feasible projects that have been announced and 60 per cent of the publicly announced projects by companies in Australia are to do with hydrogen potentially if if all those projects go ahead and that’s a big if, that’s $260 billion worth of investment just in hydrogen. You know, we had the, I guess, a China driven boom and that saw a lot of demand for our resources like iron ore and coal. As China’s middle class developed and their urbanisation increased and they needed to build more buildings. And so the demand for steel was really high and still is what we could see. Now with this, I guess renewable phase that we’re in is this investment in hydrogen.

Sam Hawley: Rachel Pupazzoni is a business reporter based in Perth. She went to South Korea as part of the Australia-korea Media Exchange programme organised by the Walkley Foundation. On top of the deal with the US, Australia also has a hydrogen supply deal with Germany. If you want to know more about where we’re up to with electric vehicles, have a listen to Australia’s new plan for cheaper EVs from April the 24th. That’s in your feed. This episode was produced by Veronica Apap, Flint Duxfield and Sam Dunn, who also did the mix. Our supervising producer is Stephen Smiley. I’m Sam Hawley. Abc News Daily will be back again tomorrow. Thanks for listening.

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