Hydrogen powers gin distillery in Barossa Valley

A small Barossa Valley distillery has shown how thinking “outside the box” makes adapting to an environment of change viable by demonstrating the use of hydrogen as a power source for small business.

The h2gin still began operations in June.

It’s off the grid. It’s carbon neutral. And sustainability is its goal.

It’s also a one-man show.

“I’m the janitor. I’m the CEO. I’m everybody in between,” says owner-operator Brett Durand. “I’m nimble enough to be able to take a risk.”

He’s determined to do his bit in protecting the iconic South Australian grape-growing region by adopting green energy and sustainable practices. But he must achieve this with limited resources.

A still is a very specific piece of equipment. Durand’s 75-litre device purifies a liquid by heating it. The vapour is collected, cooled and condensed. The resulting product has a higher alcohol content and specific flavours.

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So was switching to a hydrogen heating source hard?

“Can I just say how simple it really was?” says Durand. “It was one phone call to say, ‘can you supply me with high-grade hydrogen?’ They said yes. So then I’d secured the supply of fuel that I needed to run a direct-fire still.”

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) prices have exploded. So have commercial electricity supplies.

And that makes the emerging hydrogen market more appealing, he says.

The next step was challenging. But not insurmountably so.

Hydrogen gas is corrosive – more so than natural gas.

And the standard of steel used in commercially available still equipment is vulnerable.

“I need to find some way to mitigate the problem,” Durand says. “So I went looking for equipment that uses hydrogen as a fuel source. I found a hydrogen hotplate. And I adapted the existing off-the-shelf technology into a new purpose.”

That, however, required careful research.

“It’s not me welding something in the back sheds, wondering if I’m gonna blow myself up,” he explains. “These were proven, off-the-shelf components. But I had to spend many nights and have many discussions researching how to fit them together.”

Brett Durand

It was a matter of identifying each step of the hydrogen chain. Only then could the search for adaptable components begin.

“It’s about being nimble. It’s about using technology and components to adapt to a new set of regimes – a new set of circumstances.”

The h2gin still uses solar panels and batteries to power the distillery’s cooling system. It comprises a simple electric pump recirculating water through the still.

“It’s all existing technology, just adapted to meet different needs.”

Durand says times are changing fast.

And that’s improving the availability of environmentally and economically sustainable equipment.

“Just a few years ago, I thought I would have to build it all myself from scratch. Now, in another 12 months or so, people may be able to buy fit-for-purpose hydrogen systems off the shelf. They won’t need that fundamental engineering or construction skillset to get it all working.”

And small regional businesses, he says, have the power to act.

“Obviously, it depends on their situation,” says Durand. “They could use solar panels and batteries instead of grid electricity. In five to 10 years, I imagine people could be making their own hydrogen using small-scaled catalysers and tank storage to run industrial or commercial ovens, for example. At some point soon, it will all be commercialised on a domestic scale. And suddenly, you’ll see your local bakery, pizza shop, restaurant – all those people on natural gas now – using green hydrogen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Until then – where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“Giants move slowly. It’s in their very nature. They must follow decision-making processes that take longer timeframes,” Durand explains. “If I decide to do something and take a risk, I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. I just go and make it happen.”

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