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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15495

Dr WASHER (4:44 PM) —Like my friends the member for Bonython and the member for Kalgoorlie, I also attended the Hydrogen Economy Conference. Hydrogen can be produced from plant material that is biomass, from fossil fuels and from water by electrolysis. Biomass and fossil fuel production of hydrogen produces carbon as a by-product which requires sequestration. Using renewable non-polluting energy to produce hydrogen from water economically would solve our problem of carbon production. Hydrogen can be used in liquid form in fuel combustion engines such as BMW's new hybrid motor engines, where both petrol and hydrogen can be used.

As WA has fuel cell buses to be delivered next year—which are partly federally funded—I would like to focus on hydrogen fuel cells. The first fuel cell demonstration was by lawyer cum inventor William Grove in 1839. Water was electrolysed into hydrogen and oxygen with an electric current. He proved that when electrolysis was reversed, the hydrogen and oxygen recombined and produced an electric current—hence our ability to store and release electricity when required. This original fuel cell was based around an acid electrolyte with a cathode and anode. At the anode, the hydrogen gas ionises, releasing electrons and creating H+ ions, or protons. At the cathode, oxygen reacts with electrons taken from the anode and hydrogen ions from the acid electrolyte to form water, the residue of the process. The electrolyte must only allow the hydrogen ions, or protons, to pass through it and not the electrons, which are needed to travel through an external circuit to power an electric motor with a direct current of electron flow.

There are many different fuel cell types with different electrolytes. All result in an exothermic—heat releasing—reaction. The two main problems, leaving aside cost, is the slow reaction rate in the fuel cell leading to low currents and power and the fact that hydrogen is not readily and cheaply available. The proton exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cell was used in the first manned spacecraft. The alkaline fuel cell was used on the Apollo and shuttle Orbiter crafts. A trial of three hydrogen powered fuel cell buses will be commissioned in Perth in 2004. The hydrogen gas will be supplied by BP and the buses are Daimler-Chrysler and powered by Ballard power systems. Murdoch University will carry out evaluation on the project. The 250 kilowatt fuel cell powered buses deliver approximately 200 kilowatt net of shaft power. They will have approximately 200 kilometres of range and up to 80 kilometres per hour speed. These are PEM fuel cells.

A spokesperson at the hydrogen energy conference gave an estimate that by continuing our reliance on coal, petroleum and natural gas, as much as $US7 trillion in damage per annum may be caused in environmental degradation as well as defence costs securing the supply of these fuels. This may help in understanding the need to continue the vital research in the area of the hydrogen economy. Already in Western Australia, Hydrogen Technology Ltd has registered patents in major countries for our first multifunctional welding and cutting system using this hydrogen patented electrolysis fuel cell.

Mr Nairn —That's brilliant.

Dr WASHER —Yes, it is. It is hoped in the future to reduce diesel fuel consumption by 10 per cent and diesel emissions by using hybrid systems with the same type of fuel cell. It is essential that we pursue the partnerships with the US and EU in hydrogen economy policy and research.