The decarbonisation of transport is one of the clearest routes to reducing emissions – and hydrogen fuel cells have an important role to play in the process.
Australia’s domestic transport sector – including vehicles travelling by road, rail, air and sea – accounts for as much as 19 per cent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the most recent National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
The imperative to shift the transportation sector away from fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gas emissions, and towards renewable energy sources across all modes of transport is growing ever more significant as Australia aims to achieve net zero by 2050.
Not only will this change be a key driver in reducing emissions, but it will also reduce air pollution, contribute to better health for individuals and the environment, and improve domestic fuel security by reducing our reliance on liquid fossil fuel imports.
Many of the cars on our roads today that are propelled by an internal combustion engine (ICE), which is powered by liquid fossil fuels, will be replaced by battery electric vehicles (BEVs), which are solely powered by electricity stored in an on-board battery.
But BEVs aren’t the only form of zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs), which is why Queensland’s Zero Emission Vehicle Strategy 2022-2032 is both vehicle-type and fuel agnostic.
Hydrogen will also have an important part to play in our future fuel mix – particularly when it comes to heavier modes of transport that have proven difficult to decarbonise.
How hydrogen can help
Almost anything that uses energy can be powered by hydrogen, including transport. When used within a fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen to generate electricity without combustion. This eliminates greenhouse gases and air pollutants – the only emissions are oxygen, water vapour and heat.
While hydrogen fuel cells themselves don’t produce harmful emissions, the processes that have traditionally been employed to produce hydrogen in the first place do.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but here on Earth, it doesn’t occur in its elemental (pure) form. Instead, it has to be separated from other elements.
Currently fossil fuels are the primary source of hydrogen production, which results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen can also be produced by splitting water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. This is done by passing electricity through purified water in a process called electrolysis.
When renewable energy is the source of the electricity that powers this process, hydrogen production does not require the emission of any greenhouse gases. This is widely termed as green, or renewable, hydrogen.
The main differences between vehicles that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells and vehicles that are powered by batteries are weight and refuelling time.
Because of hydrogen’s high energy density, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) can travel further, with a superior energy-to-weight ratio to BEVs – which makes them ideal for heavy vehicles required to carry large payloads that have little downtime to refuel, such as long-haul trucks, ships, trains and even planes.
Fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs) also offer numerous benefits in comparison to electric and conventional buses, including quieter and smoother rides for passenger comfort, reduced noise pollution and competitive driving ranges, allowing for extended routes.
For renewable hydrogen to play a significant role in decarbonising the transport sector, there’ll need to be a strong supply of product. That’s why the Queensland Government aims to support the use of renewable hydrogen in the transportation sector by developing and expanding its production through the Queensland Hydrogen Industry Strategy 2019-2024.
With abundant solar and wind resources, world-class infrastructure, export-ready ports and close proximity to Asian markets where renewable hydrogen is expected to be in high demand, Queensland is strongly positioned at the forefront of this emerging industry.
Significant hydrogen projects are planned or under development across the state, from South East Queensland up to Cape York. This includes Stanwell’s CQ-H2 renewable hydrogen project, which is being developed in partnership with Iwatani Corporation, Kansai Electric Power Company, Keppel Infrastructure and Marubeni Corporation.
The project includes a large-scale renewable hydrogen production facility at Aldoga, near Gladstone, and a liquefaction and shipping facility at the Port of Gladstone.
The project could eventually become the largest renewable hydrogen project in Queensland, scaling up to produce 800 tonnes per day of clean, renewable hydrogen by the early 2030s.
If progressed, the project aims to deliver renewable hydrogen via its different carriers, to Japan and Singapore, as well as supplying large domestic customers in Central Queensland. Commercial operations are planned to commence from 2028.
The Queensland Government has committed $15 million from the Queensland Renewable Energy and Hydrogen Jobs Fund to support Stanwell to progress the Front-End Engineering and Design (FEED) study for the project. This study will develop the technical, commercial and strategic elements of the project, before a Final Investment Decision is expected to be made in late 2024.
The Queensland Government is also identifying opportunities for hydrogen heavy vehicles and exploring optimal hydrogen refuelling station locations through the Hydrogen Industry Development Fund.
In addition to the larger plants required to support an export industry, smaller-scale hydrogen plants are expected to be located closer to fuel users, and along major freight routes, as part of the Queensland Hydrogen Super Highway and East Coast Renewable Hydrogen Refuelling Network.
For instance, a hydrogen refuelling station with a 10 megawatt (MW) electrolyser, and 40 MW of solar as its energy source, could produce about 1,000 tonnes of hydrogen per year, which would be enough to refuel roughly 50 trucks powered by a hydrogen fuel cell each day.
QFleet, the fleet manager for the Queensland Government, is also in the midst of a three-year trial of five hydrogen FCEVs. The five Hyundai Nexos offer a driving range of up to 666 kilometres vehicles, with a refueling time of just three to five minutes.
By comparison, a Tesla Model 3 Performance BEV with a comparable driving range of 567 kilometres takes up to 30 minutes to charge on one of the company’s public Superchargers, or up to 38 hours on a 2.3 kilowatt (kW) wall outlet.
Australia’s largest rail freight operator, Aurizon, is also conducting a feasibility study on the potential deployment of hydrogen power technology in its heavy haul freight rail operations. The study is focused on the Moura and Mount Isa rail corridors in Queensland.
Ultimately, hydrogen is expected to form part of the transition to a cleaner, greener transport future – both in Queensland, and around the world.