Mission Innovation 2.0 launch June 2021: speech by Dr Alan Finkel

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3 June 2021

Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology, Dr Alan Finkel, spoke at the Mission Innovation 2.0 launch on 2 June 2021.

Mission Innovation 2.0 will spearhead a decade of innovation. It will increase investment in clean energy research, development and demonstrations to deliver affordable clean energy solutions by 2030.

Action will initially focus on 3 global missions:

  • power systems
  • shipping
  • hydrogen.

Mission Innovation 2.0 will also deliver a new global platform for insights, collaborations and incubators to maximise national investments. Each mission is led by a coalition of countries and brings governments and the private sector together to focus innovation efforts.

The Clean Hydrogen Mission is led by Australia, Chile, the UK, the US and European Union. It aims to make clean hydrogen cost competitive by reducing end-to-end costs to US$2 per kilogram by 2030.

Speech at the Mission Innovation 2.0 launch

Thank you for that introduction, Claudio.

I relish any chance I get to extol the virtues of hydrogen.

It’s one of my three favourite elements!

  • As an electrical engineer, I am in awe of silicon. 
  • As an electric car driver, I revere lithium.
  • And as a believer in a zero emissions future, I pay homage to hydrogen, element number one, the simplest and most versatile element of them all.

Hydrogen is a miraculous fuel.

It’s a gas that burns, like methane or propane or acetylene.

But what makes it so stunningly attractive is that, when it burns, the only end product is water vapour.

In the race to zero, no other fuel can compete with hydrogen.

The idea of hydrogen as a fuel is not new. Indeed, it has a long history.

The most prominent use of hydrogen last century was as the fuel burnt in the main engines of the Space Shuttle, whose white-hot nozzles, and invisible exhaust, thrust astronauts into space for two decades.

A lesser-known use of hydrogen was to produce the ammonia fuel in the X-15 rocket-powered aeroplane. Back in 1967, the X-15 set the world speed record for a crewed aircraft. It flew at more than seven thousand kilometres per hour, a record that remains unbroken to this day!

For a hundred years, use of hydrogen as a fuel burbled gently in and out of consideration, but today, everybody is talking about hydrogen. The conversation has become a roar.

Why now?

First and foremost, because of the global determination to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, the cost to produce clean hydrogen from plentiful solar and wind electricity has plummeted. As a result, the price of renewable hydrogen is within a factor of 3 or 4 of where it needs to be to compete with fossil fuels – and the gap is continuing to close.

Third, there has been a steady improvement in the technologies for hydrogen use. For example, fuel cells to convert hydrogen into electricity are now cheaper, smaller, lighter and more robust than they were 20 years ago. 

Equally important is the carbon fibre fuel tank that enables hydrogen to be stored at 700 atmospheres, providing cars, trucks and trains with very long driving range and rapid refuelling.

The final reason for hydrogen’s prominence is its use to ship renewable energy long distances from countries where it is plentiful to countries where the demand is high.

The challenge of hydrogen? Producing it cost effectively.

Unlike coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, water in big dams, wind and solar – all of which are fuels ready to use – it takes energy to produce hydrogen.

Despite the effort required to produce it, clean hydrogen has to match the price of the incumbent fossil fuels.

If the engineering challenge for hydrogen is to produce it cost-effectively, the commercial challenge is to build demand.

Today, there is an imbalance of supply and demand.

Demand will come from powering long distance trains and trucks, and the merchant ships that criss-cross the oceans.

Demand will come from using hydrogen and its derivatives to transport bulk renewable energy from one location to another, such as from Australia to Japan.

Demand will come from long duration electricity storage – to compensate for extended periods of low solar and wind output.

Demand will come from industrial applications, such as the production of zero-emissions fertilisers and zero-emissions steel.

Finally, there is the subtler benefit – resilience through diversity.

Today, in many large cities, if the electricity system goes down, we can still use natural gas for heating and cooking. In future, hydrogen packed in pipelines and stored in dedicated facilities will provide that resilience.

But building the demand will take innovation:

  • We have to make the end uses more efficient, durable, smaller and cheaper.
  • We have to make production more efficient, durable, smaller and cheaper.
  • We have to make hydrogen export more efficient, durable, smaller and cheaper.

In the race for cheaper hydrogen, Australia has adopted as official policy, and as a popular mantra, the stretch goal of ‘H2 under 2’.

As a first step, we are interpreting that as the production price.

But in the long term it has to be the delivery cost to the end user.

That’s hard!

We need a successful ‘Clean Hydrogen Mission’, launched as part of Mission Innovation 2.0, to help Australia and the world achieve this higher order goal.

I’ll give you two research challenges that are constantly in my mind.

First, the production efficiency. If, by 2050, as some predict, the global trade in hydrogen is a trillion dollars, a 10% improvement in production efficiency between now and then will save the world 100 billion dollars every year. Improving efficiency is hard, but I predict that it will be achieved by tens of thousands of engineers and scientists inspired year after year by the Clean Hydrogen Mission.

Second, the cost of hydrogen refuelling stations. Today, it costs several million dollars to construct a refuelling station with a single outlet. This is much too expensive for a viable hydrogen mobility system. Slashing this cost will require research into technology, standards and regulations, and the adoption of modularity and mass production. 

Finally, concentration of resources will help, too. In Australia, through our National Hydrogen Strategy, we have committed to 5 clean hydrogen valleys. The Clean Hydrogen Mission is aiming for 100. That global scale will deliver remarkable benefits.

The question I am most often asked about hydrogen in the economy of the future is: how quickly will it develop?

My answer? Be ambitious, so that we capture the potential.

In chemistry and in biology, slow reactions can be accelerated by using a catalyst.

In the race to zero, the Clean Hydrogen Mission is the catalyst that will accelerate the adoption of the number one element in the universe, for the benefit of mankind.

May the Force be with you,

Thank you.

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