The Australian Research Council (ARC) has awarded a four-year “Future Fellowship” grant of over $900,000 to a research team at the University of South Australia who is studying how hydrogen could be used to replace fossil fuels.
The grant was awarded to Research Professor Thomas Nann, of the Ian Wark Research Institute, for his project that mimics the natural process of photosynthesis in plants to produce hydrogen.
Professor Nann says the grant will help foster his research, and puts the team one step closer to their ultimate goal of generating clean and renewable hydrogen energy.
“Our goal is to find ways to convert solar energy into hydrogen fuel by mimicking natural photosynthesis. Ultimately, we want to make a device that acts as an ‘artificial leaf’ and produces hydrogen from water using sunlight. This renewable hydrogen may be used in the future to replace fossil fuels such as oil and coal,” he said.
In the race to find new and sustainable alternatives to environmentally destructive fossil fuels (like oil, coal and gas), hydrogen is frontrunner for a number of reasons, as Professor Nann explains.
“Hydrogen has a whole range of advantages compared with fossil fuels. It has a higher energy density, can be produced renewably, does not produce greenhouse gasses or pollutants on combustion, and is the most copious element in the universe,” he said.
Hydrogen is currently mass-produced using two dominant techniques, which are; steam refining and water electrolysis. However, the process of steam refining from reformed natural gas produces significant carbon emissions, and the alternative of water electrolysis can be costly and inefficient.
Professor Nann is hoping his artificial photosynthesis technique will provide a greener, more financially sustainable option.
“The problem with direct water electrolysis is that it is not very efficient. You could call artificial photosynthesis ‘electrolysis version 2.0’, because we make use of sunlight to boost the whole process. It may sound trivial, but ultimately we are trying to make water electrolysis economically viable,” he said.
Given that the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics last year found in its Australian Energy Projections to 2029-2030 study that emissions from fossil fuels will (in the next 20 years) increase from 398 million tonnes to 483 million tonnes, economically viable “green” energy alternatives are needed if Australians are to be drawn away from the present carbon-reliant economy.
Finding a means to help move away from such a fossil fuel-based economy is the very crux of Professor Nann’s research.
“In the long term, we hope to be able to provide the means for a switch over from the current carbon-economy to a hydrogen economy based on renewables,” he said.
While the research team are still a long way from realising this vision, Professor Nann is confident the results will be worth the time and effort.
“I am very aware that critics of the hydrogen economy point to the current difficulties in hydrogen production and storage, but it is early days and mankind has shown time and time again its ability to overcome difficulties. In my humble opinion, the advantages of hydrogen energy make it more than worthwhile to commit significant portions of research to making the switch to a hydrogen economy,” he said.