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By David Norman, CEO, Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre

David Norman, CEO of Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), explains how industry-led collaborative research is transforming the Australian energy industry’s knowledge of hydrogen and biomethane, at a time when this knowledge is vital.

Future Fuel’s CEO, David Norman

A new era of Australian renewables

The transition to net zero is asking the Australian industry some difficult questions, but the answers can be found through research and development, and utilities need to make a long-term pivot that puts research right at the core of their businesses.

When a group of far-sighted Australian energy companies started Future Fuels CRC in 2018, there were many unknowns about the use of hydrogen or biomethane as new gaseous fuels in Australia’s energy networks.

As we worked out the details of our three research programs, that list of unknowns became more focused and defined. Five years later, those industry-led research programs have already profoundly changed, now delivering the new knowledge needed to unlock the first stage of demonstration and development projects and driving the industry forward.

As our research continues, this will underpin the next-stage and commercialisation projects as the renewable gas industry develops across Australia. Back in 2018, the challenge in front of us was to understand how existing infrastructure could be repurposed to use net zero fuels like hydrogen and biomethane.

This would mean a top to bottom transformation of the networks; the continued safe operation of these networks, how our communities could accept and use them, the economics, the engineering, the materials science of the steel and plastics in the pipes and equipment, the operation of millions of home and industrial appliances and the workforce skills needed to carry this out.

These are just some of the issues covered in over one hundred research projects being completed by a community of almost seven hundred university researchers, engineers and industry advisors.

The great value of CRC is that it creates communities that can then carry forward its research. They are also a community for interfacing with overseas institutions working on similar research, ensuring we optimise knowledge exchange and avoid duplication of activity wherever possible.

Our community involves six of Australia’s leading research universities working as integrated teams with specialists from more than 80 companies and every state’s technical regulation teams. It’s important that this effort is broad because directly participating in research raises the skills of all the industry participants.

This means this research process is developing knowledge not just in energy companies but across the supply chain in construction companies, equipment suppliers and engineering consultancies.

Future Fuels CRC is supporting 50 PhDs and masters, whose students not only deliver our projects, but who will themselves become future leaders in research and industry. We are already seeing this as our PhD students complete their projects and start to transition into roles in industry, government and career research. We aren’t just creating workforce skills; this research program is creating the future workforce itself.

CRC’s critical research areas

Well-directed research can find ways to overcome the multi-dimensional issues that many utilities face. Just a few of our research areas show how these complex issues can be worked on using a combination of research techniques to unlock the new knowledge needed:

  • Economists are modelling how biomethane could scale up in Australia, using dynamic models to identify regions with the highest feedstock potential and lowest barriers to network connection. Sociologists are surveying and understanding public acceptance trends on using biomethane and our engineering researchers can understand and quantify the effects on infrastructure and appliances of any bio-impurities in the biomethane supply
  • Combustion engineering researchers are evaluating and testing how appliances operate on blends of hydrogen and natural gas and pathways to higher levels with a 100 per cent hydrogen supply. This covers appliances from the smallest home cooker to the largest industrial process burner and gas-powered turbines
  • Steel and polymer scientists are evaluating the integrity and operational parameters of using hydrogen in Australia’s distribution and transmission networks. We have a representative sample of the most common ‘vintages’ of plastic pipes at our sandpit test facility at Deakin University undergoing long-term testing with hydrogen at operational pressures. Our Safe(Ti) (Stress Assessment of Future Energy Transport Infrastructure) lab at the University of Wollongong is one of the few facilities in the world that can test pipeline steels’ physical properties in a pressurised hydrogen environment. These test facilities are providing the operational data that will underpin the transition to future net zero networks
  • Researchers at the University of Queensland, RMIT and University of Adelaide are unlocking the social acceptance and regulatory issues that will define how our communities engage with new energy infrastructure. In many ways, this is the most important part of all research as it is the combination of end users, voters and their representatives who have always defined how and where infrastructure is implemented and provide its regulatory and social licenses to operate
  • Multi-system modelling by the University of Melbourne is preparing the industry for a future network system in which renewable gas and electricity are thoroughly integrated with energy moving from one vector to another, depending on the lowest cost transmission option or the final product needed by the user

Utilities are now all participating in the transition to net zero, and there are plenty of unknowns ahead. However, it does not have to stay that way. Australia has world-class universities, engineers and technical experts, and they can be brought together to give your organisation the new knowledge it needs.

Future Fuels CRC is not alone; there are many colleagues in other CRCs and research groups operating in the energy, water and utilities areas, so bring them into your organisation and find ways to put research at the core of your business.

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