Time to board the hydrogen bus, says CSIRO

Australia needs to embrace hydrogen transport infrastructure, according to a new report by the CSIRO.

The report claims that hydrogen fuel will play a key role in the future of transport, and highlights places for governments and industry to focus their efforts.

The transport sector accounts for 18.6% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. When made from water with renewable electricity, hydrogen is a virtually emissions-free fuel.

According to the report, this makes it suitable for a range of vehicles that aren’t as suited to electrification – particularly heavy freight vehicles.

Dr Patrick Hartley, Leader of CSIRO’s Hydrogen Industry Mission says electric vehicles with batteries will play a huge part of the future low emissions transport mix.

“For passenger vehicles, that we will probably be the largest part of that fleet,” he says.

“But batteries struggle a bit when you get to very large vehicles, because you get very large batteries and that starts to interfere with the payload.”

Speed refuelling is another factor – electric vehicles need more stops and take longer to recharge, while hydrogen vehicles are comparable to petrol and diesel on time to refuel. Hartley points out that the uptake of hydrogen taxis in some European countries as an example.

“That makes perfect sense, because of course if a taxi has downtime to charge, it’s not making any money,” he says.

“There’ll be niches in the passenger vehicle market which will make sense [for hydrogen].”

At the moment, Australia’s hydrogen transport infrastructure is miniscule. Hartley points out Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the US – specifically California – as places ahead of the game.

“They have in the order of hundreds of [refuelling] stations, we’ve got about 13 or 14 under construction or operating.”

There’s a variety of engineering problems to be solved – including the best way to store and transport hydrogen.

“At the moment, most refuelling stations are probably generating their own hydrogen, and that makes sense because we don’t have a huge fleet of trucks moving hydrogen around. But long term, you’re going to start to see economies of scale,” says Hartley.

For centralised production plants to become economically viable, distributors will need to find the best way to get the low-density, flammable gas around the country.

“It’s all about putting as much hydrogen on a truck as you can,” says Hartley.

“Currently, the hydrogen trucks operate at a relatively low pressure, so you need lots and lots of trucks to get the right amount of hydrogen to your refuelling station.”

Super-cooled liquid hydrogen might be an option.

“You’re seeing quite a lot of that in California and Korea in particular, distributing liquid hydrogen and then converting it to the high-pressure hydrogen for loading onto the actual cars,” says Hartley.

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