An Introduction to Hydrogen

Australia’s hydrogen industry

The Australian Hydrogen Council has provided PowerTorque with an introduction to hydrogen to clear up some of the misconceptions going around.

The trucking industry was primed to get ready for sweeping change when LNG was touted as the revolutionary new technology. Battery powered electric vehicles are becoming more common as we attempt to reduce carbon emissions, but these are more likely to be found on suburban runs rather than long-haul routes.

Now, Hydrogen is getting people excited. Will this live up to the promises or will diesel still be powering heavy vehicles for some time to come?

The Australian Hydrogen Council is working to deliver the policy settings to enable hydrogen to play a part in decarbonising a range of industries, and the organisation is really excited about the potential for hydrogen in the transport sector.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet. It is the smallest atom and the simplest molecule. Hydrogen is actually present in the diesel which currently powers our machines. That’s why we call diesel, petrol and the like hydrocarbons. And just as diesel has played a huge role in powering Australia’s transport sector, hydrogen can meet our future needs, minus the carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is different to diesel and petrol primarily because it is not just a fuel, it’s an energy carrier. Although we can combust hydrogen to create power as we do with diesel, that’s not the way most hydrogen vehicles will work. The more common approach is to use hydrogen in fuel cells to generate electricity.

an introduction to hydrogen

Let’s take it back to high school to explain what a fuel cell is all about. The best way to understand how a fuel cell operates is to first look at one of the ways that hydrogen is made. Although it is the most common element on the planet, hydrogen rarely exists by itself in nature. We need to split it out from whatever it is attached to, most commonly, good old H2O, water. By running a current through water the oxygen and hydrogen atoms split and can be captured separately.

Fuel cells effectively run this process in reverse by running hydrogen molecules through a membrane to strip off the electrons and combining the rest of the molecule with oxygen (from the air which is fed into the fuel cell). The end products are electricity and water, or water vapour.

The electricity produced from the fuel cell powers an electric motor the same way a battery would. In this sense, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and battery electric vehicles are very much complementary technologies and both are part of the answer to reducing the carbon footprint of Australia’s road transport fleet. There are a few reasons why hydrogen is going to be particularly useful in heavy vehicles.

Two main characteristics set hydrogen fuel cells apart from battery electric vehicles, and which give it a real head start in the heavy transport sector, its weight and its convenience. 

Hydrogen is light. This feature is extremely important as it allows for much greater range than electric vehicles have traditionally had because the same amount of energy in hydrogen form weights less than its battery equivalent.

Although it is likely that hydrogen will play a bigger role in heavy transport than in light passenger vehicles, Hyundai Motors Australia recently beat its own world record by travelling from Melbourne to just outside Broken Hill on a single tank of hydrogen. Not too many family SUVs give you an 900km range!

The other big benefit of hydrogen over battery electric vehicles is the fact that they can be filled in about the same time as current diesel powered trucks. This eliminates the productivity losses which come with extended breaks to recharge batteries.

With Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy outlining the fact that green hydrogen is roughly cost competitive with diesel right now it’s no wonder that a number of Original Equipment Manufacturers are announcing that they will phase out internal combustion engines and are turning their attention to hydrogen.

The next two instalments in this series will look at some of the major developments in hydrogen in Australia and around the world and discuss what needs to be done to manage the transition to hydrogen vehicles in Australia.

an introduction to hydrogen