The world’s largest bulk export port authority in Australia’s Pilbara region could soon be augmenting its already record commodities exports with green energy exports that use ammonia as a carrier.

Located in the remote north of Western Australia, the Pilbara is best known for its natural resources including world-class iron ore reserves, as well as lithium and other minerals along with petroleum and natural gas deposits.

The Pilbara also boasts an abundance of sunshine and seawater, lying alongside the Indian Ocean. These resources offer the potential for the area to become a renewable hydrogen hub: Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy aims to create clusters of large-scale hydrogen demand to provide the industry with a springboard to scale. The prize from Australia’s perspective is that there is anticipated to be 300 million tonnes of additional demand for hydrogen worldwide by 2050.

Using ammonia as a carrier for hydrogen facilitates export from Australia to markets in Asia and beyond. Three of Australia’s top four trading partners, Japan, South Korea and China, have already committed to using hydrogen to decarbonise their energy systems, and interest is growing in Europe, especially in transport applications.

Ammonia has a higher hydrogen density than liquid hydrogen, and existing transport infrastructure adds to its attraction for global trade. However, ammonia can degrade the acidic polymer electrolyte in PEM fuel cells, and achieving high purity hydrogen at the point of use is a challenge.

Innovative metal membrane technologies

Australia’s national research agency, CSIRO, has developed a solution involving membrane technologies and is currently in discussions with a number of parties to fund further development. One membrane technology converts hydrogen produced from renewable energy using an electrolyser to ammonia. A second membrane technology converts the ammonia back to hydrogen ready for use in transport or power generation.

The key CSIRO breakthrough is that this second vanadium-based metal membrane can produce high-purity hydrogen directly from the ammonia. It is a dense membrane (i.e. no holes) that allows hydrogen to pass through but nothing else, and if integrated with an ammonia decomposition step, it can be used to produce fuel cell grade hydrogen from ammonia in a single process. This, along with the CSIRO’s new cheaper materials, mean that the technology can cost-effectively complete the ammonia value chain to support renewable energy distribution and export.

Korea’s Hyundai testing technology

The CSIRO entered into an agreement to develop the metal membrane technology with Pilbara iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Company in August. Hyundai will seek to demonstrate the viability of the technology for renewable hydrogen production and vehicle fuelling in Korea. The company’s hydrogen-powered Class 8 heavy-duty truck, HDC-6 NEPTUNE, made its Korean debut in July, and Hyundai plans to launch the truck along with a high durability and high power fuel cell system optimised for heavy-duty trucks within the next three to four years. The move follows the success of the company’s fuel cell electric vehicle NEXO which has a range of 609 kilometres on a single charge. Launched in 2018, nearly 5,000 NEXOs were sold in 2019, leading fuel cell electric vehicle sales globally.

Hyundai has also developed a mobile fuel cell generator that uses two fuel cell stacks and generates a maximum output of 160kW. The generator could be used for charging two electric vehicles simultaneously or charging electric buses and trucks. It also has the potential to be a clean alternative to diesel generators and is part of a Hyundai vision for the future that includes urban air mobility units. The company is working to reduce the weight of fuel cell systems and increase the power output for use in a range of applications including trains and ships.

Fortescue to build H2 refuelling station at Christmas Creek

Fortescue, Australia’s third largest iron ore miner behind BHP and Rio Tinto, plans to build a renewable hydrogen refuelling station incorporating CSIRO’s metal membrane technology at its Christmas Creek operations in the Pilbara. The station will support the deployment of a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell coaches from mid-2021. The coaches are being custom built by New York-based HYZON Motors, and the refuelling station will use renewable electricity from the nearby Chichester Solar Hybrid Project to generate renewable hydrogen onsite.

Previous deployments of fuel cell buses have been limited to city cycles where the average speed is very low, says HYZON. Higher powered fuel cells from HYZON, typically deployed in trucks, will be used to ensure suitable performance from the coaches. Heavy transport was identified as one of the most promising applications for hydrogen in Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, and if demand increases HYZON will consider local assembly of hydrogen trucks and buses.

It isn’t clear yet how the logistics will play out with regards to ammonia, hydrogen and refuelling stations. The membrane extracts high-purity hydrogen from decomposed ammonia. Whether this is done centrally at a depot and then the hydrogen is transported short distances, or if the ammonia is stored at the refuelling station and used on-demand, will need more work, says CSIRO. 

Fortescue is aiming to be net zero for operational carbon emissions by 2040 and says its partnership with the CSIRO and its continued investment in hydrogen technology provides opportunities to reduce emissions including those from iron making and steel manufacturing processes. It is investigating the potential use of its iron ore in downstream processing with hydrogen as a fuel source either directly as a reductant or as a method to generate electricity. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, and most of it is mined in the Pilbara. In March this year, Fortescue, Hatch, Anglo American and BHP formed a Green Hydrogen Consortium to look at ways of using green hydrogen to accelerate decarbonisation within their operations globally.

Japanese interest in decarbonising coal-fired power generation

Fortescue sees the membrane technology as an opportunity for the eventual bulk export of hydrogen as ammonia by capitalising on its supply chain capabilities and market access, an ambition that has also been slated by Australian oil and gas company Woodside. The company is active in the Pilbara and planning an LNG export hub in the region. It has signed an agreement with Japanese companies JERA Inc, Marubeni Corporation and IHI Corporation to undertake a joint study examining the large-scale export of hydrogen as ammonia for use decarbonising coal-fired power stations in Japan.

The study will examine the construction and operation of world-scale ammonia facilities and the optimisation of supply chain costs. Woodside will be investigating the transition from blue to green hydrogen for export. Blue hydrogen is produced from gas using steam methane reforming, with related carbon emissions offset. Green hydrogen is produced from renewable energy using electrolysis. In both production processes hydrogen is combined with nitrogen to form ammonia to enable it to be shipped as a liquid.

Yara renewable hydrogen study with ENGIE

Another Pilbara ammonia development is progressing after receiving government funding in February 2020. Yara Pilbara Fertilisers is exploring the potential for making renewable hydrogen via electrolysis using solar energy at Yara’s existing ammonia production facility in the Pilbara. The renewable hydrogen produced will displace 30,000 tonnes per year of hydrogen which Yara currently derives from fossil fuels. The study also will investigate using seawater for electrolysis and the potential for large-scale exports.

Yara Pilbara Fertilisers is one of the world’s largest ammonia production facilities, with a production capability of approximately 850,000 metric tons annually. Output from the plant is distributed within the Australian domestic market as well as exported to South Korea, Indonesia and other South East Asian markets. The ammonia manufactured at the plant is delivered via pipeline to a jetty at the Pilbara Port of Dampier and is then transported by Yara’s dedicated ammonia shipping fleet.

Yara will collaborate with French energy company ENGIE on the renewable hydrogen study. ENGIE has a dedicated hydrogen business unit focused on developing industrial-scale renewable-based hydrogen solutions in international markets. Yara International is also working towards making carbon-free fertiliser, and renewable hydrogen is key to this ambition.

Interconnector project

Another project, The Asian Renewable Energy Hub, is being developed by a consortium consisting of InterContinental Energy, CWP Energy Asia, Vestas and Macquarie Group. Final investment decision is expected in 2025 for the project which will see around 15GW of solar and wind power generated. Up to 3GW will be dedicated to large energy users in the Pilbara which could include new and expanded mines and downstream mineral processing. The bulk of the power will enable large scale production of green hydrogen products for domestic and export markets. Located about 220 kilometres east of Port Hedland, the project includes construction of four subsea power cables capable of sending green power to Indonesia and Singapore.

Australia is now the world’s largest exporter of LNG, and Western Australia accounts for over half of its production. The Western Australia government plans to have the state’s market share in global hydrogen exports similar to its share in LNG – an ambition it has moved forward from 2040 to 2030.

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