Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest is throwing $20 million behind the CSIRO’s solution to 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
  • Major car companies such as Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes and BMW are betting on the potential of hydrogen fuel cells as a future sustainable energy alternative to oil.
  • But the biggest problem holding back the technology is its transport and storage.
  • The CSIRO has developed membrane technology that makes it easy to transport as ammonia and convert.
  • Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group is investing $19.1 million over 5 years to help commercialise the concept and develop an Australian hydrogen industry.

Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) is investing $19.1 million in technology developed by the CSIRO to make hydrogen vehicles viable in a potential gamechanger for the transport industry.

With major car companies such as Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes and BMW, investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cells, one of the biggest challenges facing the energy source is its transport and storage.

Scientists at the CSIRO, who changed the internet when they developed wi-fi, are now on the cusp of revolutionising the car industry, paving the way for a fuel export industry from Australia in the process.

Australia’s national science agency has developed membrane technology to refuel cars using ammonia as the source of the hydrogen and has been trialing the technology in Queensland with Toyota and Hyundai, using locally produced fuel.

The competitive advantage of hydrogen is that unlike electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen-cell vehicles can be refuelled in minutes with a range up to twice that battery-based EVs. Technological advances are also driving down hydrogen – a renewable resource – production costs to make it cost competitive with oil-based fuel.

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 and thus paves the way for bulk hydrogen to be transported as 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.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall hailed it as “a watershed moment for energy”, when it was initially developed for less than $3.5 million in partnership with UK-based industrial gas multinational BOC.

Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) will invest nearly $20 million over five years to bring the membrane project to commercial reality, with an eye to creating an Australian hydrogen industry.

The agreement includes commercialisation arrangements for the membrane technology, with a subsequent five-year investment in hydrogen R&D.

Forrest, who made his billions exporting iron ore to China, could potentially have a new resource to export.

Dr Marshall said the FMG builds on the CSIRO’s long history of industry collaboration.

The personal insect repellent Aerogard was originally developed by the organisation during WWII, going on to become an essential household item via a commercial collaboration with Mortein.

Dr Marshall and the CSIRO believe there is massive potential in an economically-sustainable local hydrogen industry in the near future.

“Today we’re seeing a ‘market pull’ from companies like Fortescue to reinvent themselves through deep science-driven innovation and follow the global market shift towards a low-emissions energy future, and in so doing create a whole new export market for our vast clean energy resources,” he said.

“This partnership is great news for Australia, not just through new industry creation and the jobs that will flow from it, but in contributing to a different energy future that is secure, affordable, and sustainable.”

Fortescue chairman Andrew Forrest said Fortescue wanted to be at the forefront of a once-in-a-generation energy revolution.

“As a proud Australian company, we are excited to partner with CSIRO, our nation’s preeminent science and research body, to unlock the potential of hydrogen, the low emission fuel of the future,” he said.

CSIRO will continue its own investment in hydrogen R&D, chiefly through its Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platform (FSP), and will work with Fortescue to commercialise technologies that support new energy markets, including in the chemicals and transportation sectors.

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.