A generic image of a hydrogen storage facility. Image: Twitter

In a major development, Australian green energy engineering company Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) announced in late December that it had designed and built its own electrolyzer to make hydrogen.

Hydrogen is taking off as a new source of clean energy only a decade after a pioneering scheme, the world’s first municipal hydrogen energy project, was launched in Japan.

Let’s put that into context with a little history. As reported at the time by the (now defunct) Japan for Sustainability non-profit news source, the Association of Hydrogen Supply and Utilization Technology (HySUT) started operations at the Kitakyushu Hydrogen Town Project in cooperation with Fukuoka Prefecture and the city of Kitakyushu on January 15, 2011.

Using hydrogen generated as a by-product at local steel plants, the pilot project supplied the gas to residential, commercial and public buildings through pipelines. It also tested hydrogen fuel cells and a power supply system linking the fuel cells.

Part of the hydrogen energy promotion efforts of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), HySUT then had 13 corporate members.

HySUT now comprises more than 40 corporations, two industry associations and five government organizations. See my article Japan Inc driving toward a hydrogen energy future (Asia Times, March 15, 2021) for more information about Japanese corporate and government efforts to promote hydrogen energy.

Australia raises the bar

Fast forward to December 20, 2021, when FFI’s announcement – as big a deal as it substantively was – went unheard in some quarters during the holiday season.

A 100%-owned subsidiary of the giant Fortescue Metals Group, FFI is, according to its website, “committed to producing zero-emission green hydrogen from 100% renewable sources [and] investing in zero-emission resources to produce renewable energy at a scale equal to the oil and gas super-majors.”

As the company explained in the press release:

A small team from FFI’s manufacturing arm developed the innovative electrolyser in their Western Australia facility, producing industrial-grade hydrogen for the first time earlier this week.

FFI has developed a number of new electrolyzer technologies that will form part of their electrolyzer patent family.

The outcomes of these projects will inform FFI’s electrolyzer technology selection going forward, as FFI works towards its target to produce 15 million tons of green hydrogen per year by 2030.

That’s more than 50 times greater than the 280,000 tons that the SK industrial group – South Korea’s most ambitious hydrogen producer – is targeting by 2025.

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd is the fourth largest iron ore mining company in the world after Vale, Rio Tinto and BHP. Headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, it aims to be carbon neutral by 2030.

What is green hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, non-toxic and highly combustible gas. It combines with oxygen to form water (H20) and is also found in ammonia (NH3), methane (CH4) and other compounds.

Image: Utility Analytics Institute

Colors are attributed to hydrogen to indicate the environmental friendliness of its method of production.

  • Green hydrogen, in the words of Emanuele Taibi, PhD, head of Power Sector Transformation Strategies at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), is the name given to “hydrogen produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity.” Hydrogen produced using electricity generated by fossil fuels is not green.
  • Gray hydrogen is produced from methane or coal, producing so much carbon dioxide (CO2) – “the main culprit for climate change – that it is often called brown or black hydrogen instead of gray. It has no energy transition value, quite the opposite.”
  • Blue hydrogen is gray hydrogen plus “additional technologies necessary to capture the CO2 produced when hydrogen is split from methane (or from coal) and store it for long terms. The main point is that, [by] capturing a large part of the CO2, the climate impact of hydrogen production can be reduced significantly.” 
  • Turquoise hydrogen is made using pyrolysis (decomposition by means of high temperature) to split natural gas or biomethane into hydrogen and solid carbon.

“Methane pyrolysis is still at the pilot stage,” Taibi says, “while green hydrogen is rapidly scaling up based on two key technologies – renewable power (in particular from solar PV and wind, but not only) – and electrolysis.”

Importance of electrolyzers

Electrolyzers are the key component in systems used to produce hydrogen. Here’s a quick course in Electrolyzers 101 from Cummins Newsroom: Hydrogen Technologies:

An electrolyzer is a system that uses electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis. Through electrolysis, the electrolyzer system creates hydrogen gas.

In its most basic form, an electrolyzer contains a cathode (negative charge), an anode (positive charge) and a membrane. The entire system also contains pumps, vents, storage tanks, a power supply, separator and other components. Water electrolysis is an electrochemical reaction … Electricity is applied to the anode and cathode across the proton exchange membrane (PEM) and causes the water (H20) to split into its component molecules, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2).

It is not a new technology and many, many companies around the world make electrolyzers.

These include Fortescue/FFI, Cummins and Plug Power (US), ITM Power (UK), Siemens, Air Liquide, Stiesdal and NEL Hydrogen (Europe), Toshiba and Hitachi Zosen (Japan), Doosan and SK (South Korea), China Shipbuilding Industry, Shandong Saikesaisi Hydrogen Energy and Sinopec (China).

ITM Power is now the world’s largest maker of electrolyzers. Plug Power is tied up with SK and Fortescue. Cummins is tied up with Sinopec. Last October, Stiesdal of Denmark and Reliance Industries signed an agreement to manufacture Stiesdal electrolyzers in India.

As money pours into hydrogen energy, the proliferation of new investment in R&D and manufacturing combines with M&A and joint ventures to drive productivity up and costs down. This should put hydrogen on the same path to competitiveness with fossil fuels as was followed by solar and wind power.

Like Japan and Australia, South Korea, China, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, the EU, the UK and the US all have public/private sector hydrogen energy projects and strategies.

For details of the comprehensive South Korean effort, see “Korean-German JV presses button on world’s biggest hydrogen plant” (Asia Times, June 22, 2021).

Hydrogen energy is part of China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25). Japan and Russia have reached an agreement on the production of hydrogen in Sakhalin for supply to Japan.

The sector is growing by leaps and bounds, with the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance alone operating some 750 projects.

Australian mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and an arm of his company Fortescue have been behind the push for green hydrogen. Photo: AFP / William West

In this environment, FFI chairman Andrew Forrest talked about the commitment required to make a superior and differentiated product when he explained in the press release that FFI’s new electrolyzer:

was internally designed, built and commissioned by a small, dedicated team of experts … The team spent thousands of hours on this project, facing setbacks along the way, but they pushed forward and managed to produce hydrogen before their stretch target date … FFI is in the process of installing solar panels at FFI’s Dawson Road facility, which will mean the electrolyzer will be able to produce green hydrogen in 2022.

In November 2021, FFI received planning approval to build a new hydrogen equipment factory in Queensland. In a statement from the Queensland Government, Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development Steven Miles was quoted as saying:

It will be the first facility in Australia able to make the multi-gigawatt-scale electrolyzers used worldwide in hydrogen production. With initial capacity to manufacture up to two gigawatts (GW) of electrolysers annually, it will be the largest electrolyzer factory in the world when it comes online in 2023.

But for how long, in this fast-moving industry environment?

Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research, Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667