Hydrogen Energy Briefing Paper No 2/2021

Hydrogen Energy

This paper was produced to assist the Legislative Council’s Standing Committee on State Development with its current inquiry into the Development of a hydrogen industry in New South Wales.

What is hydrogen and what can it be used for?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, with the simplest atomic structure of any element (a single negatively charged electron circling a single
positively charged proton). The most abundant source of hydrogen on Earth is water, the compound H2O. Hydrogen can also form hydrogen gas (H2); a colourless, odourless, non-toxic, flammable gas that is present in the Earth’s atmosphere in amounts less than 1 part per million by volume. Below -252.87◦C, hydrogen gas forms Liquid Hydrogen (LH2).

Hydrogen can be used to generate two forms of energy: heat and electricity. Heat energy is generated when hydrogen undergoes combustion in the presence of oxygen. The output from the combustion of hydrogen in the presence of pure oxygen is heat energy and water. No carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gas is emitted. However, if hydrogen is burned in the presence of air, harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) can be formed. Electrical energy is generated when electrochemical processes in a fuel cell strip hydrogen atoms of their electrons and the electrons flow through a circuit. The only by-products are heat energy and water.

Hydrogen can be used in the natural gas network for home heating, cooking and water heating. It could replace up to 13% of the natural gas distributed by the network without any modification of appliances, existing pipeline infrastructure and gas meters. High-temperature industrial processes that currently rely on natural gas can convert to hydrogen with minimal retrofitting of existing equipment.

Hydrogen is used as a fuel in electric vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells. In Europe, hydrogen trains are being used to decarbonise parts of rail networks that have not been electrified. Hydrogen trucks have also been purchased for commercial use. Hydrogen buses, ships and aeroplanes are in various stages of development. The use of hydrogen as a transport fuel could improve Australia’s domestic fuel security.

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