Over the years in this column, I have reported on electric vehicles and how they are powered, either with a battery, which is a black box that most of us understand to some extent, or with a hydrogen fuel cell, which is a black box to most of us.
Well, fuel cells are coming to the fore as the potential electricity generators of future transport when supplied with hydrogen. Fuel cells generate electrical power quietly and efficiently, without pollution.
A fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process, it produces electricity. With a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen constantly flow into the cell so it never goes dead – as long as there is a flow of hydrogen and oxygen into the cell, the electricity flows out of the cell.
The key ingredient is hydrogen, which can be easily generated in a sustainable way by using solar power to break down the water molecule into its components hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen can be captured and stored under pressure the fuel cell generates electricity through combining that hydrogen with oxygen to form water again.
A real circular economy, but transporting the hydrogen is an economic problem. Therefore, for fuel cell vehicles, such as the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai in Australia and for the tens of thousands of such cars overseas, hydrogen supply is critical to refill their on-board storage tanks – oxygen is freely available from the air anywhere.
CSIRO scientists have found a way for Australia to capitalise on this new energy bonanza. Australia has a huge source of renewable energy – sunlight and wind –that can be used to produce hydrogen.
CSIRO researchers have found a way to turn Australian-made hydrogen into ammonia, meaning it can be shipped safely to the mass market of Asia.
More recently, they have developed a membrane to convert the ammonia back to hydrogen, which can then be pumped into hydrogen-powered cars.
CSIRO is an Australian icon, and just like the ABC, we all must work to ensure it is properly funded to ensure that it can continue both blue-sky and applied research. Remember that WiFi came from CSIRO.