A world-first technique that combines solar energy with water harvested from the air to create low-cost 'green hydrogen' has been mastered at the University of Newcastle.
The development represents a major breakthrough in the race to commercialise zero-emission fuel technology needed to make mass-produced hydrogen vehicles a reality.
The Newcastle research has captured the interest of an international vehicle manufacturer, which is keen to trial the technology in Australia.
Pioneered by Professor Behdad Moghtaderi and his team, the technique overcomes some of the key challenges which have limited the domestic production and availability of hydrogen fuel.
The technology employs a 'hydro harvester' - an innovation that 'harvests' pure water from the air.
An electrical current generated from solar panels (electrolysis) is applied to split the pure water into hydrogen and oxygen before storing the hydrogen as a gas.
Professor Moghtaderi said the pilot plant, located at the University's Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, offered key advantages that could rapidly boost domestic hydrogen production capabilities.
"By harvesting water from the air we aren't placing added pressure on potable water supplies for drinking and household use, which in climates like ours is a long-term consideration for viability," said Professor Moghtaderi.
"Importantly, the water we produce via our hydro harvester technology is so pure it can be directly fed into the electrolyser, which is a huge advantage over other sources of water. Sea water, wastewater or even tap water require multiple treatment steps to reach the level of purity required in electrolysis. By removing the need for treatment, we can dramatically reduce hydrogen production cost.
"We've developed a scalable system. Our pilot plant demonstrator produces one kilo of hydrogen a day, however a commercial scale system could produce thousands of kilos per day."
Professor Moghtaderi and his industry partners are in discussions with an international car manufacturer that has expressed interest in trialling the technology in Sydney later this year.
"Hydrogen is such an attractive fuel because its only byproduct after oxidation (e.g. in a Hydrogen fuel cell car) is water. It's also the most abundant element in the universe - it makes up three quarters of all mass on earth," Professor Moghtaderi said.
Professor Moghtaderi's team, which has partnered with Southern Green Gas on the hydrogen innovation initiative, are also developing ways to combine the green hydrogen with carbon dioxide (also extracted from the air), as a way to readily transport hydrogen.
"As part of an ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency)-funded project, we're combining carbon dioxide with our green hydrogen to make renewable methane. This allows us to easily transport hydrogen over large distances using existing natural gas pipelines. At the point of use green methane can be converted back to hydrogen or used as-is in households as a renewable form of natural gas," Professor Moghtaderi said.
The green methane technology will be demonstrated at a gas hub near Roma, Queensland, where it will produce approximately 620 kilograms of hydrogen per year, converting it into 74 gigajoules of methane that can then be injected into the existing network of natural gas pipelines across the East Coast gas grid.
"We're leveraging Southern Green Gas and their partner APA Group's expertise and energy infrastructure to transport green methane through existing infrastructure, which will significantly accelerate the adoption of this greener energy option. We expect to have this running by late next year," Professor Moghtaderi said.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, research and innovation, Professor Janet Nelson, said the university's multiple hydrogen research initiatives were focused on overcoming key challenges associated with sustainable hydrogen energy to support increasing global momentum for clean hydrogen.
"This important research helps Australia move closer to achieving the Commonwealth government's vision under the national hydrogen strategy and ultimately, deliver renewable and low-carbon hydrogen. I'm proud that our university and regions continue to play a pivotal role in helping to investigate and deliver next generation resources," Professor Nelson said.