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Climate change resilience

WEC 2019 Day 3: Creating a future fuelled by clean energy

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As the world’s population rises, cities grow and technology advances, finding new and sustainable sources of energy will become vital to keeping the planet a place where everyone wants to live. 

 

During their opening keynote on day three of the World Engineers Convention, which wrapped up today in Melbourne, Dr Paul Durrant, Head of Innovation Strategies for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, pitched hydrogen as a crucial component of the clean energy mix to ensure a sustainable future. 

Hydrogen is becoming an element of rapidly growing importance, Durrant said, not just because it’s the most abundant element in the universe, but because it has an important role to play in helping us tackle climate change. 

“There are significant challenges remaining, but engineers play a crucial role,” he told the audience. 

Finkel echoed these thoughts, saying that making hydrogen a viable energy storage option is a challenge best suited to engineers. 

“The goal is to ensure Earth stays beautiful — wind and sun are plentiful, and we need a high-density, transportable fuel with no CO2 emissions.” 

Finding a niche

Durrant said interest in hydrogen is driven by some key factors: there is now a societal and policy imperative to tackle climate change; achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 requires energy access, efficiency and investment in renewables; and there is a growing consensus that the world is facing a climate emergency.  

But there’s some good news, Durrant added, because viable and affordable ways of addressing these concerns are being developed. 

Globally, 26 per cent of power is generated by renewables, but the problem with renewables is that wind and solar are variable. Long-term storage becomes important to bridge the gap.

“Hydrogen isn’t an energy source, it’s an energy carrier, which makes it ideal to partner with renewable sources of energy,” he said. 

There is already some commercial uptake of hydrogen for energy storage — for example, in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or trucks. But Durrant said the area where hydrogen could have a massive impact is in helping industries that currently struggle to find viable ways to reduce emissions. 

That includes manufacturing, transport and construction, as “electrification is difficult in these sectors,” Durrant said.

Scaling up

Currently, hydrogen production is done on a relatively small scale, and a lot of hydrogen is grey hydrogen — that is, hydrogen produced using energy from coal and gas. 

Shifting from grey hydrogen to producing hydrogen with energy from renewable sources (aka green hydrogen) would make the enterprise even more viable. 

“Green hydrogen holds the most promise,” Durrant said. 

“By 2050, two-thirds of hydrogen produced could come from renewable energy.” 

A lot of time and money is currently being devoted to creating more efficient and scalable forms of hydrogen production, Durrant said, which could eventually bring the costs down as well. Most hydrogen is produced via electrolysis, a process where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. 

He acknowledged that the costs of renewable energy, electrolysis and transport are the main inhibitors, but with advancements in technology, by 2050 it could be “cheaper than fossil fuels”. 

“Economies of scale are crucial to achieving that,” he said. 

Challenges ahead

For those who can scale up production and invest in green hydrogen, there are benefits beyond emissions reductions. Hydrogen is a valuable commodity, and can be exported similarly to liquid natural gas (LNG).  

Some far-sighted countries are laying the groundwork to make this happen, including Australia, which both Durrant and Finkel said is an ideal place for hydrogen production. 

Finkel wasn’t able to appear in person at the World Engineers Convention on Friday, as that same day he was presenting Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy to the Council of Australian Governments in Perth. 

He has visions for a future where Australia produces hydrogen in the same quantities as LNG, which it currently produces for export on a grand scale. 

Hydrogen production on the same scale is feasible, Finkel argued. To make his point, he put it in terms of what’s need to produce hydrogen for export equivalent to Australia’s 2018 LNG exports. As hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel, the amount of energy stored in 70 Mega tonnes (Mt) of LNG could be found in 30 Mt of hydrogen. 

To produce that much hydrogen, it would take 900 GW of solar energy, requiring 18,000 square kilometres of land. That’s only one per cent of the country’s landmass, he said, smaller than some of Australia’s cattle stations. 

Finkel said by 2050, he would like to see a global hydrogen trade worth trillions of dollars, something he feels is achievable with the right support in the present. 

A focus on increasing the efficiency of electrolysis would go a long way. According to him, a 10 per cent increase in efficiency would yield savings of US$130 billion a year. There is also work being done to make thinner fuel cells, to find ways to increase the storage capacity for transport and to recover hydrogen from other processes. 

However, both Finkel and Durrant acknowledged there is still more work to be done before we achieve a hydrogen economy and Finkel’s dream of an electric planet. 

Hydrogen production requires large quantities of water, which is a finite resource that’s growing scarcer by the day. There is also more research that needs to be done in lifecycle analysis to ensure production is truly sustainable. 

And who better to find solutions to these challenges than the world’s engineers?

renewable energy exports as hydrogen

What will it take to make hydrogen the clean fuel of the future?

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Interest in hydrogen as a source of clean energy has risen in recent years, and engineers have a key role in scaling up technology to help Australia fulfil its potential as a major exporter.

According to Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, a keynote speaker at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, Australia has all of the key ingredients needed to make and export hydrogen.

“We’ve got the land, the sun, the wind, the coal and gas, the technology smarts, the regional hubs, the global networks and the industry expertise,” he said.

Finkel added that clean hydrogen technologies could also help reduce emissions on the home front. For example, hydrogen-powered trucks, trains and ships could meet the growing demand for zero-emissions transport.

Hydrogen could also replace liquified natural gas (LNG) in domestic and industrial heating, which has the potential to cut emissions and reduce energy bills at a greater rate than electrification.

And engineers will have a key role in making hydrogen a viable energy source for both local use and export.

“The key challenges here are to get to scale, bring down production and utilisation costs and improve efficiencies – these are all the bread and butter of engineers,” Finkel explained.

Why now?

As well as a zero-emissions energy alternative to coal, oil and natural gas, hydrogen can be used as a feedstock for industrial chemistry.

And while this isn’t the first time the world has gotten excited about a hydrogen revolution, Finkel said current interest is being driven by factors including rapidly falling production costs, as well as hydrogen fuel cell transport options such as the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, which are starting to compete with petrol-fuelled vehicles in terms of cost, efficiency and performance.

hydrogen powered cars

Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells offer benefits like faster charging compared to electric vehicles.

“This isn’t the first time the world has been interested in hydrogen. But I can tell you that this time it is different,” he added.

Another driver is that energy-intensive countries such as South Korea and Japan do not have the capacity to generate enough clean and renewable electricity to meet their needs.

“These countries will be looking to import zero-emissions energy. This is where clean hydrogen comes into the picture,” Finkel said.

Japan has already made a strong commitment to importing hydrogen from Australia. Construction has recently begun on a government-backed joint venture between Japanese and Australian industry to prove the technology to liquefy hydrogen produced from brown coal in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley and ship it to Japan, although carbon capture and storage will be needed to prevent increased local emissions if the trial is scaled up to commercial proportions.

It won’t happen overnight

Finkel said that turning this opportunity into a real-world transformation will require both the production and use of hydrogen to be significantly scaled up.

“This is not something that can happen overnight. It is a journey to be navigated with patience, innovation and determination. We will need to build out gradually, learning and recalibrating along the way,” he added.

But Finkel believes that Australia has what it takes to build a large-scale hydrogen industry, citing the three decades of work that has put Australia in a position to surpass Qatar as the world’s leading exporter of LNG.

To help the country fulfil its potential, Finkel is leading the development of a national hydrogen strategy commissioned by the Coalition of Australian Governments Energy Council (COAG), which is due for release in December .

Australia Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel

Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist

The strategy is focused on six areas: hydrogen exports; hydrogen for transport; hydrogen in the gas network; hydrogen for industrial users; hydrogen to support electricity systems; and issues such as safety, finance, and research and development (which could affect the other five areas).

In July, the Hydrogen Working Group released nine issues papers that focus on various aspects of the emerging industry, which has already attracted more than $100 million in Federal Government funding. Finkel said these papers provide some indication of what the final strategy will look like, and will provide more details during his WEC keynote in November, when the strategy is closer to completion.

Demand for engineering resources

Finkel said scaling up hydrogen production and use will require a huge quantity of engineering and manufacturing resources.

In the longer term, engineers will be needed to maintain the reliability of the hydrogen energy network by developing smart systems to manage diverse networks and loads, and solving the challenges of large-scale storage.

They will also be key players in managing trade-offs and opportunities as we move from independent electricity distribution and transport sectors to a coupled relationship governed by hydrogen use.

And while the challenges are far from trivial, there is scope to use hydrogen along with other clean energy technologies to improve reliability, while reducing energy costs and emissions.

“If we get this right, we will all benefit from using new technologies to overcome the problems that have emerged from the use of older technologies,” Finkel said.

Dr Alan Finkel will be a keynote speaker at the World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne, where he will explore the challenges of scaling up to meet the dream of a low-emission planet based on the development of Australia’s national strategy for clean hydrogen.

Register here 

 

Ja

How necessity inspires invention in the mind of engineer James Trevelyan

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Professor James Trevelyan opens up about the many inspired inventions that have characterised his vast career.

Pointing across his office to the small appliance projecting cool air, Professor James Trevelyan gives a working example of his engineering philosophy — that necessity is the mother of invention.

He said that good engineering enables people to do more and live more comfortably, and with greater certainty, less effort and less consumption of energy.

But it was a lack of good engineering — regular power outages on hot nights in his wife’s native Pakistan — that inspired that small, quietly humming air conditioning unit.

The Close Comfort air conditioner provides extremely energy-efficient cooling.

The invention, along with the rest of his body of work, won Trevelyan the Professions award in last year’s Western Australian of the Year Awards.

Trevelyan, an Engineers Australia Fellow and University of Western Australia School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering Winthrop Professor, laughs as he recalled a night when it was 40°C indoors with 70 to 80 per cent humidity.

“We had a battery inverter that could generate about 300 W, so I was trying to think of something that would run on that amount of power,” he said.

The result was Close Comfort, a tiny portable air conditioner that creates a microclimate providing localised cooling.

Conventional air-conditioning technology focuses on cooling entire buildings, but Trevelyan said that wastes energy when it is actually just the people who require cooling.

“Close Comfort runs on 300 W, whereas a conventional air conditioner for a room of this size” — about 5 m x 5 m — “would require 2.5 kW or more, so it is incredibly energy efficient,” he said.

Close Comfort produces a near laminar stream of air and directs it to where cooling is needed, as opposed to creating a turbulent air flow that mixes up the air in a room.

Trevelyan said the machine also exploits human physiology, which dictates that if the face is being cooled then it will have a flow-on effect to the rest of the body.

Based in Perth, Trevelyan’s company, Close Comfort, is now marketing its namesake product in five countries, including developing countries like India and Pakistan.

Shear genius

Trevelyan also led the team that pioneered sheep-shearing robots for the wool industry between 1976 and 1989.

“At the time we realised we needed a different kind of education, because it didn’t make sense for engineers to learn how to write software on the job, or learn how to design electronics on the fly,” he said.

“So it was projects like the sheep-shearing robot and other similar projects around the world at the time which gave rise to the field of mechatronics.”

The team decided the traditional hand-shearing tool was the best way to cut wool and so set out to emulate expert shearers and recreate their skills in a machine.

The robot used a machine vision system to generate geometric models of the sheep’s surface, determining the arm trajectories and providing feed-forward information into the cutter motion-control system.

While the robot was not put into widespread use, the team found that the system provided a successful working example of sensor-based control, trajectory adaptation and online strategy planning.

In 1993, Trevelyan led a team of students to create “Australia’s Telerobot on the Web”, a six-axis industrial robot linked to the internet and one of the earliest demonstrations of the Internet of Things.

Ja

James Trevelyan’s pioneering sheep-shearing robot emulated expert shearers.

A thirst for more

Today, at 70, Trevelyan is not slowing down. He told create that life keeps on getting faster. He is turning his attention to providing clean drinking water in developing countries where water supply utilities are a “disaster”.

The main cost is not in filtration, he said, but in distributing safe water.

“I would like to create a water distribution system where people see value for money and will repay the cost of the service,” he said.

“We need a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and value perceptions around our engineering work, and that has to be as much a part of an engineer’s knowledge as any technical discipline.

“It’s not rocket science, yet holds immense potential for Australian firms.”  

Making it count

Some of Professor James Trevelyan’s later research has examined how engineers create commercial value from their work.

“A lot of the engineers I interviewed often said they spent their time looking at spreadsheets or signing off on design specification documents and that they don’t get to do any ‘real engineering’,” he told create.

“My goal is to say to engineers who think they are not doing anything fancy that they actually are creating immense value by enabling investors to invest big money by reducing the apparent risks or protecting social and economic value already invested.”

James Trevelyan will be speaking on the topic of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the World Engineers Convention 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne. 

Register now.