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Australian plan to make hydrogen using coal and ship it to Japan comes under fire

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Suiso Frontier hydrogen carrier australia japan Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain - HySTRA/Handout via REUTERS
Suiso Frontier hydrogen carrier australia japan Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain - HySTRA/Handout via REUTERS

A plan to make liquid hydrogen from brown coal in Australia and ship it across the Pacific has been criticised as “way worse” than burning diesel or natural gas.

A new liquid hydrogen tanker is due to carry the first shipment of the gas, heralded as zero-carbon fuel, from Australia to Japan, which is increasingly using it in a bid to decarbonise its economy.

While the company behind the plan insists that future shipments will benefit from carbon capture, where CO2 is pumped underground, the first batch was made through a process that releases carbon dioxide into the air.

Brown coal produces almost double the carbon dioxide per unit of energy than natural gas and a third more than diesel.

The hydrogen will be shipped in the new Suiso Frontier tanker from the port of Melbourne. It has been made in a process called coal gasification, which forms syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. That mixture is then refined into hydrogen and CO2.

The Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC), the joint venture between Australia and Japan producing the gas, said it has purchased carbon credits for the carbon dioxide released in making the hydrogen onboard the Suiso Frontier with future carbon dioxide captured and stored underground.

When the project is storing CO2 underground, it will produce 225,000 tonnes of liquefied hydrogen, which will cut carbon emissions by 1.8m tonnes a year - equivalent to the output of 350,000 cars, HESC said.

Hydrogen is much less energy-dense than coal and so transporting it over large distances is inefficient, said Prof David Cebon, professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University and a member of the Hydrogen Science Coalition.

He also questioned the economics of capturing the carbon dioxide, a process in its infancy with few large-scale projects outside the US and Canada.

Using coal and lignite is “far, far worse than the alternatives of burning diesel or burning gas”, Prof Cebon said.

“It generates way, way higher carbon emissions, if you don't capture the carbon dioxide. The energy wastage, through all the steps of this chain is enormous and the cost of carbon capture is very high.”

Brown coal, or lignite, is ranked one above peat in terms of how carbon-rich and therefore clean it is.

Australia is friendlier to coal than many western nations, most of which are trying to phase out using the fuel. In November Australia refused to join a group of 40 nations phasing it out by 2030, siding instead with China, India and Japan.

Angus Taylor, the Australian energy minister, said at the time that the government would not risk “wiping out industries”.

The resources minister, Keith Pitt, said on Friday: "We will continue to support our traditional industries, our traditional exports, but we'll also grow areas like hydrogen. Today's shipment comes from brown coal. It is available, it's affordable, it's local and delivers jobs into regional areas.”

Australia could make use of its enormous solar power potential and sell electricity delivered via undersea cables like those connecting the UK and France, to export power, Prof Cebon added.

HESC was contacted for comment.

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