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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15492

Mr MARTYN EVANS (4:30 PM) —A week or so ago the government arranged for an international conference to be held in Broome on the future of the hydrogen economy, particularly in Australia but, with international speakers present, it also touched on the hydrogen economy internationally. I for one have been following the future of the hydrogen economy in a global context for roughly two decades now. I have long felt that the hydrogen economy at a global level has a very significant future mainly for Western economies, in the first instance, but ultimately for the planet as a whole.

Many members may be unfamiliar with the hydrogen economy, but the reality is that over the next three or four decades—and it will take that long—as we find the pressure increasingly placed not only on the environment but also on petroleum products and the availability at a reasonable price of those petroleum products, we will need to look to alternative fuel sources and alternative ways of using fuels. Of course, air pollution and greenhouse gases are an issue. Hydrogen is not only the No. 1 element on the periodic table and the lightest element but also a very significant store of energy. Hydrogen is perhaps one of the highest value stores of energy that we have available to us in the form of a fuel which we can readily transport around not only in gaseous form but also in liquid form. Hydrogen can also be burnt in internal combustion engines adapted for that purpose. It can also be burnt in an engine in the form of a fuel cell. The fuel cell can therefore generate electricity and power electric vehicles or other forms of stationary electric motors.

Hydrogen not only can be transported readily in a liquid or gaseous form but also, given enough further research, can be absorbed by solids in the form of hydrides and possibly other solid forms. When it is burnt in this context, either in an internal combustion engine or in a fuel cell, it gives off no other pollution than simply water vapour. It does not emit any carbon dioxide and it does not emit any other pollutants such as nitrous oxides or sulphur dioxides. Therefore, it is the ultimate fuel in that context.

The real difficult which was identified in the original discussions on the hydrogen economy and further identified at the recent conference—which, I might say, was particularly successful—is the issue of the economics of deriving hydrogen. We can readily obtain fuel from the LNG deposits which we have off our coast on the North West Shelf and at other locations and from the massive coal deposits which Australia and other countries have. Unfortunately, while we can effectively mine our fossil fuels, we cannot mine hydrogen. There are no available sources of hydrogen on the planet other than those we derive by converting fossil fuels into hydrogen—but of course then we have CO2 to deal with. Alternatively, we can obtain hydrogen by the electrolysis of water. That requires substantial amounts of energy, which can only be obtained from fossil fuels, nuclear fuels or solar or wind energy. Of course, the costs of those remain quite high, except in special cases, such as in Tasmania where competitively priced products are available.

Research is yet to be undertaken in those significant areas. This conference was about the future—the short-term future, the medium-term future and long-term future. I think we should see the hydrogen economy in all of those contexts. Hydrogen is a long-term future prospect and we should take it seriously.