If I had a blank cheque I’d … develop hydrogen-based sustainable energy

Developing sustainable energy sources needs some of the country’s best and brightest. x-ray delta one

Project: Develop hydrogen-based sustainable energy
Cost: $20 million
Timeframe: Seven years

Finding real green energy is a vital area of research. Is there an energy that meets the needs of its users, and that doesn’t use non-renewable resources? Is there a way to develop energies that don’t rely on a single technology?

We in Green Chemical Futures at Monash – part of the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science – are determined to find an energy source that fits the bill.

We want to expand the ways we can produce energy, based on renewable resources or solar energy.

There are many possible technologies that satisfy the basic requirements of a sustainable energy source. Our energy supplies of the future will almost certainly involve a mix of these. They need to be appropriate to the circumstances of individual regions and communities.

So it is important that research and development efforts aren’t overly focused on a single technology.

It may be “green”, but is it sustainable?

It is equally important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past by becoming overly reliant on technologies that use, in a non-recycling or non-renewable way, scarce resources.

For example, it is a little known “sleeper” issue that a number of the technologies under rapid development for “green” vehicles rely upon catalysts that are based on precious metals.

The fuel cell in question currently uses a precious metal catalyst containing platinum. There is only sufficient platinum mined each year in the world to support a small fraction of global vehicle production.

Worse still, the bulk of known platinum reserves are in a single, relatively small region of the world – southern Africa.

A technology based on this metal would be destined to produce the same geopolitical issues in the world as oil has in the past 50 years.

Our approach in Green Chemical Futures is to adopt a holistic view of these technologies – we want to achieve sustainability in all respects. We are certain the breakthroughs we need to create these truly sustainable energy technologies are achievable, given enough effort.

If we had a blank cheque to develop these technologies we would place a much greater effort behind some of our existing programs.

Untangling hydrogen generation

Solar generation of hydrogen is one of the ultimate fuel technologies.

When hydrogen is burned it produces only water and it can be generated through the electrolysis of water. In the short term this could be achieved using solar electricity. In the longer term we could use a cell that integrates solar energy absorption and water electrolysis.

Highly efficient catalysts are the key to this process. A substantially expanded research effort would surely develop the understanding and techniques required to design and optimise these.

Part of the current hold-up is a lack of understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in the immensely complex catalysis process. A large and talented team of physicists, spectroscopists and electrochemists working together could untangle this problem. They could tell the materials chemists what structures need to be created.

While hydrogen can be used directly in various domestic and transport contexts it offers other attractive possibilities in the area of transportation fuels.

Biodiesel is a “first generation” approach to biofuel production. It wastes the water and land resources required for its production. We need alternative solutions to create sustainable fuels for industry, mining and aircraft.

Let’s all get together and build a biofuel

Jet fuel is a good example. We think that oxygenated carbon compounds can be produced by processing lignocellulose materials (such as wood and grass). These could be transformed into jet fuel and diesel by several further reaction steps to increase the size of the molecule. Hydrogen is added in a reaction known as hydrogenation.

This increases the energy density of the fuel considerably and the biofuel can then be considered a carrier of the hydrogen energy.

With a blank cheque we would assemble a large team of organic and catalyst chemists to develop these reactions and scale them up for commercial use.

Ultimately, the solution to the challenges of future energy supply come down to teams of clever people working closely together in cutting-edge facilities.

We certainly have the talent in Australia, we just need the budget to bring them together in the same place to work on these big problems.