Our Current Energy System
Currently we rely on fossil fuels including coal, oil and natural gas to provide 87% of the world’s energy, and coal provides a great contribution to Australia’s economy and generates a large numbers of jobs. But for how much longer? Countries like China, one of our main coal consumers, are eager to shift from coal to cleaner energy technologies. Furthermore, on a global scale, we are using 50% more resources than the earth can replenish in a year – the equivalent of using 1.5 planets per year! – Obviously not a sustainable business model.
The earth has a natural carbon cycle, where carbon dioxide is produced naturally and then taken in by plants to grow and produce oxygen. But by extracting and burning fossil fuels for energy production we disrupt this natural cycle, because the additional carbon dioxide generated cannot be converted back into fossil fuels (it usually takes a few million years…). If the amount of CO2 we generate continues to increase, it is predicted that global temperatures will increase at least 3 °C by the end of the century, which will change the earth’s ecosystem and have a huge impact on our daily life.
There are many downsides to the heavy reliance on fossil fuels for our energy needs:
- Carbon dioxide is not the only harmful gas produced from burning fossil fuels. Many other substances such as carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxides are also released into the atmosphere. This leads to high levels of air pollution all over the world, which can lead to cancer and other health problems (World Health Organization). Prevention should be our first aim, because pollution is produced all across the world, we are all sharing the same air!
- We are heavily reliant on fossil fuels for a variety of other applications, including plastics, pharmaceuticals and fertilizers to grow food for an ever-increasing population (10 billion by 2050). Supply of non-renewable resources is important for more than just the energy industry.
- Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans is leading to global warming. This is already having an impact on Australia’s climatic system, and in the future we will see more frequent bushfires, more severe/longer droughts and eventually some of our nation’s most beautiful landmarks such as the Great Barrier Reef will be gone.
- Australia’s economy relies heavily on mining and exporting primary resources. What is going to drive the economy in the future and provide us with an healthy economy when these resources are gone?
What Could We Do Instead?
Relying on energy resources that take millions of years to produce is not the most effective way to power our society. What if we could move towards an abundant yet sustainable energy system?
We have resources such as the sun, wind and water all around us, and with clever use of these resources we could have clean, affordable and infinite energy. Rather than fossil fuels being mined and energy generated in large power plants, households, businesses and industries could become completely self-sufficient, renewable micro-energy systems. Australia could also become an international platform to harvest solar energy and export this renewable and clean energy to neighbour countries.
The problem with this vision is the irregular nature of wind, solar and other renewables, and ultimately the lack of energy storage systems that are more effective than batteries. Electricity production from renewables is seasonal, and any excess electricity produced must be stored for the days with no wind or less sun. Furthermore, for Australia to become a global exporter in clean energy, the energy produced from renewables must also be effectively stored for distribution. The solution to this problem is to store additional electricity in the form of hydrogen because it is clean and very efficient. Hydrogen has an energy density of 39 kWh/kg, which means that 1 kg of hydrogen contains 130 times more energy than 1kg of batteries. So lots of energy can be stored with hydrogen in only a small volume.
Solar panels, wind turbines or any other form of renewables could be used to generate electricity to locally power homes and domestic industries, and any excess electricity can be used for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen stored for later use. Additional hydrogen could also be produced through the degradation of organic waste increasing the efficiency of current recycling schemes. The stored hydrogen can then be converted back into electricity or other forms of energy when needed, via a fuel cell or direct combustion. Using hydrogen this way provides a path for effectively harvesting renewable energy and a sustainable path for unlimited clean energy with the only emission being pure water!
For large solar power plants in remote areas, electricity could be directly harvested, converted into hydrogen for storage and exported, making Australia a global leader in the clean energy market. In this new energy economy, hydrogen provides a very efficient means to store, transport and use energy on demand and in a clean fashion.
How Can We Make It Happen?
As a gas, hydrogen has low density, i.e. it occupies a very large volume. We need to find ways to compact it into much smaller volumes for its practical and everyday use. For example: to power a car with hydrogen for 400 km, a hydrogen balloon 5 m in diameter is required. This is obviously not practical; so all the hydrogen required needs to be packed into a much smaller form.
The solution is to use materials capable of storing large amounts of hydrogen in a compact form. Metals and compounds such as magnesium and sodium borohydride can absorb a lot of hydrogen (up to 10% of their own weight) like a sponge would absorb water. The beauty of this concept is that once the hydrogen is absorbed by the material it is indefinitely stored in a totally safe manner. Controlling the temperature of the materials will allow fully reversible uptake and release of hydrogen.
Today only a few materials (e.g LaNi5, see the chart below) can absorb and release hydrogen at ambient temperature. Unfortunately, these materials are heavy and thus can only store small amount of hydrogen (less than 1.5 wt%, i.e. 1.5 % of their own weight).
Many other materials, like borohydrides, can to store large amounts of hydrogen (up to 18.4 wt%). However, the use of this material is currently limited by the need for high temperatures to enable the release hydrogen and extremely high pressures (above 300 times atmospheric pressure) for hydrogen uptake. We need to find a way to use these materials without the extreme conditions.
The EnergyH “Pop Balloons Challenge”
Half a cup of water can generate approximately 106 Litres of hydrogen gas. Using our materials we can store that much hydrogen in just 0.005 Litres. That’s a 10,000 fold decrease in the storage space required!
We develop materials to store a lot of hydrogen in a safe way so hydrogen can be used as a clean fuel. We do not need the balloons anymore. So Let’s pop them!
Please post your video on Youtube and on EnergyH Facebook page (use the hastag #EnergyHpopballoonschallenge) and Twitter (use @energyhproject)
We have been doing research over the last 15 years to bring temperature requirements below 100 °C and use low pressures so that practical hydrogen storage can become a viable option. To be able to transform and extend our research findings into new market products we need your support and we need your help to raise enough funds for this research to continue.
What We Can Do With These Materials
There are no limitations. Any application requiring power can use hydrogen. This includes portable electronics like mobile phone and vehicles as well as powering houses and industry. However, hydrogen materials would need to be specifically tailored for different applications in order to optimize energy efficiency.