Australian scientists may have solved one of the biggest problems holding back hydrogen-powered cars

The CSIRO team working on the membrane technology that allows hydrogen fuel to be transported as ammonia. CSIRO

One of the biggest challenges facing the hydrogen fuel industry – its transport and storage – may have been solved by scientists at the CSIRO, paving the way for a fuel export industry from Australia.

With some of the world’s biggest car companies, including Toyota, Hyundai and BMW, betting on hydrogen as a future fuel source, the national science agency has developed membrane technology to refuel cars using ammonia.

Two fuel cell vehicles, a Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, have been successfully refuelled using ultra-high purity hydrogen produced in Queensland.

The Toyota Mirai powered by hydrogen fuel produced in Queensland. CSIRO

Unlike electric charge cars, hydrogen-cell vehicles can be refuelled in minutes with a range up to twice that of electric vehicles run on batteries. Technological advances are also helping drive down the production costs of renewable hydrogen to make it cost competitive with oil-based fuel.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall says the technology, via a modular unit, paves the way for bulk hydrogen to be transported in the form of ammonia, using existing infrastructure, then reconverted back to hydrogen at the point of use, plugging the gap in the technology chain to supply fuel cell vehicles.

“This is a watershed moment for energy, and we look forward to applying CSIRO innovation to enable this exciting renewably-sourced fuel and energy storage medium a smoother path to market,” he said.

“I’m delighted to see strong collaboration and the application of CSIRO know-how to what is a key part of the overall energy mix.”

The CSIRO-designed membrane separates ultra-high purity hydrogen from ammonia, while blocking all other gases. It solves the problem of the currently complex and relatively expensive movement of bulk hydrogen by using liquid ammonia.

UK-based industrial gas multinational BOC has partnered with the CSIRO on the project, which received $1.7 million from the federal government’s Science and Industry Endowment Fund, matched by the science agency.

Following today’s demonstration in Brisbane, the CSIRO plans to create several larger-scale demonstrations, in Australia and abroad with a view to creating an export industry.

The science body is also working on other parts of the hydrogen technology chain, including water electrolysis and hydrogen production.

While hydrogen-powered cars have been a major focus in Hyundai’s homeland of South Korea, with a five-year plan to put 16,000 vehicles on the road, the technology is still under trial in Australia and a lack of infrastructure to refuel has been a key problem.

Toyota is looking to begin importing the Mirai in Australia as soon as 2019, following a three-year trial of five of the hydrogen-powered cars locally since 2016.