neon city illustration hydrogen
hydrogen could be an energy efficient and ultra-clean way of heating and cooling homes

Although much of the buzz around renewable hydrogen is focused on cars and its money-making potential as an overseas export, in the short-to-medium term hydrogen could also be used for cooking, heating and cooling Australian homes.

University of New South Wales associate professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou told The Fifth Estate that in some contexts hydrogen may be better than batteries as an energy carrier.

“One of the things people don’t realise is electrifying society is good but a lot of processes need heat. Batteries can’t produce heat,” professor Aguey-Zinsou said.

“For manufacturing you need heat, you need hot water in buildings… this is why hydrogen is interesting because it can produce heat as well as electricity.”

He says that although hydrogen can be used as a fuel cell to make electricity, this conversion process is not particularly efficient. But for cooking, hydrogen can be converted directly to heat, which according to Professor Aguey-Zinsou, is a much more efficient process.

Another benefit of using hydrogen for domestic purposes, he said, is that all materials involved in storing it are recyclable. Battery storage, on the other hand, is not so easily recycled.

Professor Aguey-Zinsou, who leads UNSW’s Material Energy Research Laboratory in nanoscale (MERLin), is currently working on a project to develop materials that allow hydrogen to be stored in a safe, compact and economical way.

He says this technology could be an energy efficient and ultra-clean way of heating and cooling homes (through airconditioning) in the future.

Professor Aguey-Zinsou said there are only a few small-scale pilot examples where clean hydrogen is being used in a domestic context.

A small demonstration project by Swiss research institute Empa and the Zurich University of the Arts relies on hydrogen as part of its completely self-sufficient operations.

Designed by two industrial designers, Sandro Macchi and Björn Olsson, the “SELF” living lab is able to “autosupply” itself with energy and water from the atmosphere.

Surplus solar energy from the building’s solar power plant is stored as hydrogen to cover seasonal discrepancies. Hydrogen is also reconverted to electricity by a fuel cell and used as fuel for cooking in a stove that works using “direct catalytic oxidation”.

What’s holding Australia’s hydrogen economy back?

The technology for a hydrogen-powered Australia already exists, according to professor Aguey-Zinsou. He says fear of disruption is holding the energy sector back.

“When you talk to the energy sector about hydrogen technology its not always received well, because this is going to disrupt the sector,” he said.

“There’s been some exploration of hydrogen, and know we’ve started to spin off the thing to help houses disconnect from the grid. And if those houses can produce enough hydrogen to become a system that can disconnect from he grid, then that is very disruptive”.

Hydrogen economy is building momentum

Despite these challenges, Australia’s hydrogen economy is starting to build momentum. On Thursday, the CSIRO launched the National Hydrogen Roadmap that charts the course of action governments and industry should take to realise the full benefits of the hydrogen economy.

On the heating potential of hydrogen, the roadmap predicts slow take-up unless the government provides a “clear policy signal” on the decarbonisation of gas networks.

“Direct combustion of hydrogen for the purpose of generating heat is unlikely to compete with natural gas on a commercial basis before 2030,” states the strategy.

An earlier application will be mixing hydrogen with natural gas, which can be done using the existing gas pipeline infrastructure.

“Hydrogen enrichment of the natural gas network provides an early market for hydrogen and a shorter term option for decarbonisation of the sector without the requirement for a significant upgrade of existing infrastructure,” it states.

“However, due to different burner properties and characteristics of the gases, a move to 100 per cent displacement of natural gas with hydrogen will require an upgrade to existing appliances and possibly pipelines.”

In welcoming the roadmap, the Energy Networks Australia backed hydrogen as a possible replacement for natural gas.

“We proactively engaged with CSIRO to identify the role networks could play in reducing emissions from the use of gas within homes and industry,” chief executive officer of Energy Networks Australia Andrew Dillon said.

“Hydrogen by itself, or as blended with natural gas provides exciting opportunities. Just like renewable power generation offers emission reductions from electricity generation, hydrogen offers similar potential to sectors where electrification does not make sense.”

Mr Dillon added that there is growing interest from network businesses.

“Innovation to reduce the production cost of hydrogen will see it make commercial sense to be used as a network fuel to complement or replace natural gas in coming decades,” he said.

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