Australian minerals and hydrogen research gets A$59m funding boost

Article by Adam Duckett

A FLOATING device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from wastewater and a leaching process aimed at boosting the value of low-grade iron ores are among a series of engineering projects that Australia is funding to boost its key industries.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has awarded funding worth A$59.1m (US$38m) to 21 industry and university research projects as it seeks to bolster the development of its burgeoning hydrogen economy and massive minerals sector.

Hydrogen float

A consortium led by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has been awarded A$2m to fabricate a floating device that uses a membrane integrated with a photocatalyst to split wastewater into hydrogen. The project runs to 2029 and seeks to demonstrate that a device powered just by sunlight can produce cost-effective green hydrogen from wastewater and clean it at the same time by degrading its organic contaminants.

Australia has the conditions to make the most of a global push to use hydrogen as a greener fuel. It receives abundant sunlight for splitting water into hydrogen and has ample wide-open spaces to house solar projects. However, a key challenge to address is how you export hydrogen to buyers overseas given it must be compressed to around 350–700 times atmospheric pressure as a gas or cooled to -253°C as a liquid.

ARENA is funding a host of projects that are looking to improve technologies to convert hydrogen to ammonia. This is appealing because ammonia has a higher volumetric energy density and its storage is well developed due to its widespread use as a feedstock for fertilisers.

Curtin University wants to make that transport even simpler by exporting hydrogen as a solid in powder form. Researchers will work to optimise the electrochemical conditions and membrane selection to produce sodium borohydride from hydrogen. It must also optimise a reactor process that would allow the rapid but controllable release of hydrogen from the powder once it has reached where it needs to be used.

Mineral wealth

Australia has the world’s largest estimated reserves of iron ore at some 52bn t, equivalent to around 30% of the global total. This mineral wealth could increase if low-grade deposits were made economic to develop.

The Heavy Industry Low-Carbon Transition Cooperative Research Centre has been given A$1.4m to engineer a scalable hydrometallurgical caustic leaching process to remove impurities. Upgrading the iron means it can be used in direct iron reduction processes that would skirt the need for using dirtier coal-based processes to make steel.

The centre will develop a leaching process that uses reagents produced from seawater brines. These brines will be produced by nanofiltration and membrane electrodialysis. It could also produce valuable byproducts from these brines including lithium salts.

Darren Miller, ARENA CEO, said: “We’re backing Australian technological innovation that helps build our clean industries and underpins our ambitions of becoming a renewable energy superpower.”

A full list of the projects is available here.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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