HYDROGEN and the potential of Gippsland and its industries to play a role in the hydrogen technologies seen as crucial for the energy transition are set for a higher profile in the region, with Federation University in Churchill the focal point.

An industry workshop at the university’s Gippsland campus late last year featured ‘big hitters’ such as Siemens and the CSIRO, from both Clayton and online from Canberra.

Niche players taking part included SunGreen2, a Singaporean start-up specialising in hydrogen production through electrolysis; Foton Mobility; and Australian Carbon Innovation.

“The aim was to bring these players to one platform, to have honest and clear conversations, and an ongoing dialogue, about hydrogen technologies – the gaps in knowledge and how to move forward,” said Fed Uni’s Associate Professor Surbhi Sharma, speaking of the Latrobe Valley workshop.

Dr Sharma is the leader of Future Fuels and Hydrogen Technologies, one of the four streams of Federation’s Centre for New Transition Energy Research that was set up in late 2022.

Dr Sharma is based in Gippsland, but the other three streams are in Ballarat.

She has a doctorate in nanomaterials, worked in hydrogen fuel cells in her PhD, and has a background in interdisciplinary research,

“I’m based in Gippsland, but the centre is quite new. We are continuously adding new people, but there is no number we are currently aiming for,” she told the Latrobe Valley Express.

“I joined from the UK last year. I’m still identifying what is needed, where to go from here, getting funding – it’s not easy to get funding for hydrogen at small, regional universities.

“Gippsland is an important region, but not everyone understands that. Attracting local research students to the region is also a challenge the university is facing.”

One major outcome from the workshop was the severe lack of social awareness about the technology and understanding what it means.

“Most don’t have an understanding about hydrogen technology. There are a lot of misconceptions that it will only replace diesel or petrol in the cars in transport, or hydrogen is not safe to burn. That is not the case; most think of the Hindenburg (the giant Zeppelin balloon filled with hydrogen that burst into flames in the 1930s). That’s what a lot of people relate hydrogen to,” she said.

Current hybrid vehicles, for example, where the engine runs on diesel/petrol and the battery is charged through that, can be transformed through hydrogen.

“In the hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid (current technology), the fuel cell replaces the petrol, the battery is still there. There is no hydrogen burning; the hydrogen is being used via an electro-chemical reaction, you only have water as a by-product apart from electricity,” Dr Sharma said.

“Availability of hydrogen electric systems (buses, trucks, tractors and stationery energy generators) fitted with hydrogen fuel cells and batteries (emitting just water vapour) would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the local businesses, supply chains and households.”

Gippsland has been introduced to hydrogen through Japan’s HESC coal-to-hydrogen project, which has been proven at the pilot plant scale and is now gearing up towards a commercial plant by the end of the decade. The Latrobe Valley’s brown coal is gasified and split into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The CO2 is to be stored under Bass Strait; the hydrogen is transported to Western Port where it is liquefied and transported in bulk to Japan.

Dr Sharma was born in Delhi in India, where she did her undergraduate and Masters degrees before moving to the UK for higher studies, ultimately staying to do research for 15 years from 2007 to 2022.

“My research experience is in hydrogen fuel cells and low temperature fuel systems. I’m coming from the green hydrogen (produced from renewables) perspective. I want to bring here that technology and understanding built over the last decade from the UK. There is a lot of scope here. There is not much done in hydrogen research here, which gives me a lot to cover as an academic,” she said.

However, the coal and carbon capture and storage research in Gippsland is a new frontier for Dr Sharma.

“It’s new for me here, too. I see the relevance of that in the region. It’s a resource for the region and the fact that coming from an academic perspective, I understand the importance of both blue (fossil-fuel-based hydrogen) and green at this stage for the energy transition,” she said.

The Committee for Gippsland last year released a report that backed both blue and green hydrogen for Gippsland, with blue having the early running but in the long run, each complemented the other.

“I don’t disagree with that at all. Energy transition is seen internationally – no academic in the field will disagree that blue will cover a lot of ground in the intermediate phase, we cannot go into complete energy transition with renewables without the blue hydrogen,” she said.

“Green will eventually take over, now it’s not there. We need the infrastructure, the investment – that will not happen overnight. We need that time for transition and blue hydrogen will help us. Carbon capture balances the footprint – it’s needed for the current transition phase.”

The workshop, held at the end of last year, brought industry, different institutions and organisations with the aim to move forward hydrogen knowledge and research in Gippsland.

“What the university can do, where industry can help, what is missing for industry, what are the gaps, how to go forward, rather than fixating discussion on blue and green – that was the discussion,” Dr Sharma said.

“We all appreciate that hydrogen has to be there, why not move forward with other aspects of the requirements for the technology – it’s not just the colours and the generation of hydrogen; we also need to focus on storage, the transportation and the utilisation. New technology is involved in all of these aspects, there are training and research requirements for all these aspects as well that we are not looking into and ignoring by focusing on blue or green.”

At the workshop, Dr Sharma said representatives from the hydrogen automotive sector emphasised that engineers and technicians, as well as managers and consultants, were needed now as the industry was struggling to move forward in Gippsland and in Australia.

The workshop also underlined the urgent need for a hydrogen fuel cell research and training facility in Gippsland to support the industry in manufacturing, assembly of hydrogen systems and educational courses – engineering, science business, IT and the social sciences.

Dr Sharma said hydrogen technologies were also essential for power generation – supporting the grid energy balance to manage the unpredictability of solar and wind power and the limitations of batteries.

“None of the available renewable technologies are mature enough and that is a well appreciated fact across the industry and academia. These are evolving technologies, and none can independently take over the load of existing energy requirements, we need them in the mix,” she said.

“Hydrogen is essential to the mix for a sustainable transition. The generation of electricity from hydrogen fuel cells can feed into the grid, can feed into the gaps between other renewables. We want to ensure the consistency of energy supply and not have power failures or power surges, balance demand and supply across different times of the day and the year. You need a mix of these technologies.”

This emphasises the need for more interest, understanding and training in hydrogen technologies for them to evolve.

“The main place where hydrogen is being looked at as a fuel to burn is in the manufacturing of iron and steel that require furnaces. They use fossil fuels. That will be transitioned to hydrogen, to get rid of the carbon footprint and negative aspects of that. A lot of the rest of the infrastructure will be electrified and hydrogen is part of that electrification process,” Dr Sharma said.

Dr Sharma said in Europe, America and the UK, hydrogen research was forging ahead, while India was “picking up the pace”.

“We are a decade behind in terms of what we are doing here. There is no structured approach to training for graduates or doctoral students on hydrogen technology. Teaching programs need to be developed across all universities. If this is going to be a transition, it must be a nationwide exercise, it can’t just be done in a few universities,” she said.

“A lot of the infrastructure will be set up in the regional areas and therefore, regional universities will probably do more work.

“There are a lot of transition issues that we need to be keep in mind from a regional perspective. It will affect people in those areas, it’s where industry is going to come.”

Dr Sharma emphasised that without social awareness moving forward, acceptance of these technologies and adoption of these technologies would be very slow.

“It could take forever. We don’t have that luxury of time with the climate crisis; that is the motivation to drive the energy transition.”

The workshop concluded with an agreement to hold more workshops and move towards a structured approach with concrete steps that government, industry and academics can put in place to forge hydrogen technology in Gippsland.


The method to the madness

HYDROGEN is the most abundant element in the universe.

The sun, and other stars, are essentially giant balls of hydrogen and helium gases.

The sun is essentially a giant ball of hydrogen gas undergoing fusion into helium gas.

This process causes the sun to produce vast amounts of energy.

Hydrogen occurs naturally on Earth in compound form with other elements in liquids, gases, or solids.

Hydrogen combined with oxygen is water (H2O) and is the lightest element.

Hydrogen is a gas at normal temperature and pressure, but hydrogen condenses to a liquid at -253C.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier.

Energy carriers transport energy in a usable form from one place to another.

Elemental hydrogen is an energy carrier that must be produced from another substance.

Hydrogen can be produced – or separated – from a variety of sources, including water, fossil fuels, or biomass and used as a source of energy or fuel.

It takes more energy to produce hydrogen (by separating it from other elements in molecules) than hydrogen provides when it is converted to useful energy.

However, hydrogen is useful as a fuel because it has a high energy content per unit of weight, which is why it is used as a rocket fuel and in fuel cells to produce electricity on some spacecraft.

Hydrogen is not widely used as a fuel now, but it has the potential for greater use in the future.