A project to produce hydrogen and graphite from biogas will test new applications and markets for the clean energy source.

The energy transition is entering dangerous territory. Variable sources of renewable energy – solar and wind – are champing at the bit. They want access to the grid right now. They are trembling with ambition. The various generals who manage the grid have slowly become hip to the cause and are drawing fresh lines of transmission on the map. Will all go well? Most definitely not – unless as much variable load enters the system as is contained in the pipeline of volatile supply.

Standing at the sidelines are participants eager to deploy various system-calming technologies. This will be their age as much as it will be remembered as the golden era for wind turbines and PV panels.

One much-touted solution is the manufacture of hydrogen. Plans are in progress for gargantuan clean energy projects powering electrolysis – where hydrogen is split from water – at export-scale. Smaller, and some may say more realistic, developments are popping up where hydrogen produced via electrolysis is used on site – to avoid the expense of transport and turning it back into electricity.

Western Australia is shaping up as a playground for most of the mega-scale projects, but it’s also the home state for a hydrogen hopeful that takes a different approach.

The Hazer Group has raised the money it needs to get started on its $17 million Hazer Commercial Demonstration Project, a 100-tonne-per-year low-emission hydrogen production facility located at the Water Corporation’s Woodman Point wastewater treatment plant, south of Perth. Tapping the plant’s supply of biogas, the team will apply the “Hazer process” to turn methane (CH4) into hydrogen, separating the carbon to produce graphite, with iron oxide used as a catalyst.

“The methane in biogas is the same as the methane in natural gas, except one was created by the breakdown in organic material between 20 and 60 million years ago and the other by the breakdown of organic material between two weeks and two months ago,” says Hazer Group CEO Geoff Ward.

Clean cut

When natural gas is used to make hydrogen using the much-used steam methane reforming method, CO2 is produced. But the Hazer method captures the carbon from the feedstock to deliver a saleable by-product, used in building materials, an anode material in lithium-ion batteries, in water treatment, lubricants and many more applications. “We see a growing market for carbon in the 21st century,” Ward says.

The Hazer process evolved from the PhD research work of chief technology officer and company co-founder Andrew Cornejo during his stretch at the University of Western Australia. The company now has a research partnership with the University of Sydney.

Once separated, the hydrogen will be purified and sent to a fuel cell to generate 80-100kW of electricity for the water plant. “We’re focusing on using biogas because then not only do we get a low emission process but we get an abatement credit for capturing and safely disposing of that carbon, so we can make a carbon-negative process,” Ward says.

The process has survived pre-commercial research trials and pilot plant operations in Sydney and at the Mineral Resources plant in Kwinana, Perth. A second pilot trialled a different reactor design. “Those pilot trials gave us enough confidence in the performance of the chemistry that we commenced the design of the commercial demonstration plant in June 2019,” Ward says.

Having reached financial close, the green light is glowing. Hazer raised $8.4 million in equity when it listed on the ASX in late 2015 and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency awarded it $9.4 million in grant funding in March. The company also has a line to $6 million in debt capital from Mitchell Asset Management. Ward says the share registry is well populated with retail investors, although small cap institutional investors are looking interested. “Australia has quite a strong group of investors who are willing to back relatively early stage companies.”

Hope for hydrogen

It’s not surprising that Ward is bullish on hydrogen. As variable sources of renewable energy push their way into the grid he says the molecule will express itself as a flexible load for surplus clean energy and a brilliant source of stored supply. Plans for gigawatt-scale hydrogen export projects powered by vast solar and wind plants powering electrolysis technology are also within the realms of possibility, he reckons.

“Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s they always said solar was 20 years away, then of course that ‘some day’ always turns up – and we’ve seen that happen over the past decade for wind and solar,” he says.

It’s not just scale of manufacturing that has pushed down the cost of wind and solar but the fact that the resources are abundant. Once you’ve bought the kit, you don’t have to pay for the fuel. Or, as Ward puts it, “no moving parts, not much maintenance and no fuel bill.”

Fossil fuels, he says, have a rising cost curve, where the cheapest sources are drained first, so that higher-cost sources must be tapped, and so on and so on. “That means inherently the price is always going up, but with renewables the more you use them the cheaper they get. You get economies of scale and a learning effect.”

The result is price falls up to 90%, which has inspired a surge of new energy entering the system. It sounds fantastic, unless there is no use for all that energy. Like a demobbed and restless army, this is a resource that must be put to use – of there’ll be trouble.

“It’s really important we use that energy smartly,” Ward says. “I don’t subscribe to this idea that it costs the grid money; no, it doesn’t. We’ve shown that the grid can absorb 20, 30 as much as 40% [variable renewables] quite easily. But the grid isn’t going to absorb 80 or 90% renewables without some serious modification in terms of storage, grid smarts and in terms of moving the energy to where you need it when you need it.”

It’s not hot air

In a grid overflowing with variable output from wind and solar plants hydrogen can act as a useful, perhaps essential, form of storage or as a way of simply transforming electricity into fuel for transport, for example.

“You can store is as a liquid, you can store in various solid media, you can store it in compressed form, you can transport it in trucks, in trains, in pipelines, in ships, and you can use it for driving turbines, feeding industry or generating power and district heating using fuel cells,” he says. “Hydrogen is what will enable 70-80% penetration of renewables. It will enable the renewable transition that is being driven by the plunging cost of wind and solar.”

Yes, electrolysis is energy-hungry, but who cares when electricity is free? “If you’re not paying for a renewable resource then the energy efficiency doesn’t matter so much,” Ward says. “We see ourselves in collaboration with hydrolysis rather than in competition with it.”

If there are hydrogen detractors today, he says, they are the same people who said solar and wind would never work. “Australia’s had a shocking record over the past 15 years of underestimating the future cost of fossil fuels and overestimating the future cost of renewables.”

And in case you’re wondering, Hazer is an acronym for Hydrogen And Zero Emissions Research, the name of the umbrella laboratory program for PhD studies at Cornejo’s alma mater the University of Western Australia. The pilot has also received funding support through the West Australian Renewable Hydrogen Fund.