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Kiwi Researchers On Verge Of International Breakthrough In Hydrogen Technology       Chris Mole - Associate Editor

July 7, 2004

NZ scientists are poised to launch the world’s first plant to turn coal into electricity via a hydrogen fuel cell. It’s the culmination of two years’ work by researchers from CRL Energy and Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), supported by a $6m investment from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST), with input from Solid Energy and the Coal Association.

The system uses a “coal gasification” process, in which coal is heated and mixed with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, or “syngas,” which is then filtered to create pure hydrogen. A key part of the work focuses on the best methods of purifying hydrogen to maximise its effectiveness in electricity generation.

CRL Energy Principal Engineer Dr Steven Pearce says: “We’ve got the machine built.
Within a month we’ll commission it and begin producing hydrogen.”

IRL has already developed a small fuel cell and has tested it on bottled hydrogen. The fuel cell is now ready to receive the coal-generated hydrogen, to produce electricity. Dr Pearce says the individual technologies are not unique but it’s the first time they’ve been combined into a system to turn coal into electricity via hydrogen and a fuel cell.

The next step in the six-year project is to use the technology to supply a 50kW fuel cell, which could meet the electricity needs of 10 to 20 households or a small factory. A natural extension of the programme would be to incorporate the technology in a coal gasification power plant, combined with carbon geo-sequestration (capturing CO2 emissions and storing them underground) - resulting in near-zero emissions energy production.

As well as being used to generate electricity, the hydrogen could also be used in fuel cells to power vehicles. Dr Pearce says NZ has sufficient “low-rank” coal - well suited to producing hydrogen - to meet the country’s hydrogen needs for many centuries as we move towards the vision of a hydrogen-based energy economy.

He adds NZ is in a position to be a “technology shaper rather than a taker” – particularly in the area of small-scale hydrogen technologies for distributed energy generation.

IRL’s Electrotec Research Manager Alister Gardiner says a key issue with fuel cells is the high purity of hydrogen required. “The medium term will see hydrogen of sufficient purity to run high-efficiency fuel cells, micro-turbines and engines and the fuel cells of future transport fleets.”

The next stage of the programme will also look at improving hydrogen storage facilities, including cryogenic (low-temperature) technologies and high-pressure gas storage.  The programme is being overseen by a governance panel with representatives from Solid Energy, BP NZ, Meridian Energy and FRST.

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