How one chemical engineer is channeling Australia’s plentiful PV into hydrogen-derivative renewable fuels


Scientia Professor Rose Amal from the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering researches and publishes prolifically in the fields of fine particle technology, photocatalysis and functional nanomaterials. Even to most people working in photovoltaics, her work would seem arcane, and yet it has, says UNSW, “profound implications for solar and chemical energy conversion applications such as … generating renewable hydrogen economically and sustainably”. And Amal herself is a wonderfully plain speaker.

When she was awarded the prestigious 2021 Chemeca Medal by the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Chemical Engineers on Thursday, Amal described her research in recent years as focused on “harnessing solar energy to produce chemicals and fuels, such as hydrogen”.

Her LinkedIn feed is bursting with congratulations on the award which specifically recognises her research into catalysts for efficient energy conversion. 

Ian Phillips, General Manager at Photon Water Australia, part of the Photon Energy Group posted: “Rose Amal you continue to teach, learn, and inspire new generations of engineers and scientists. And with research that the world badly needs. Well done and congratulations to you and the team behind!”

Kristy Muir, CEO of the Centre for Social Impact and Professor at the UNSW Business School commented, “Congratulations Rose! You’re amazing!”. This simple attribution echoes the sentiment expressed by Professor Nicholas Fisk, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, at UNSW who commented on Amal’s award saying: “Rose is at the forefront of fundamental particle and catalysis R&D in Australia in areas which directly impact people’s lives.”

Scientia Professor Rose Amal has been awarded the 2021 Chemeca Medal in recognition of her work in applying fundamental chemical research to efficient energy conversion.

Image: UNSW

The ripple effects of a nano-focused body of work

Research papers she has contributed to may be characterised by titles such as: Nanofluidic voidless electrode for electrochemical capacitance enhancement in gel electrolyte, but they represent the chemical bedrock on which future sustainability is being built, or as the abstract of this 2021 paper (one of a dozen or so Amal has co-authored so far this year) explains, its findings “are valuable to solid-state electrochemical energy storage technologies that require high-efficiency charge transport”.

In January this year, Amal contributed to a breakthrough paperA hybrid plasma electrocatalytic process for sustainable ammonia production — which describes a process of producing green ammonia (used mainly in fertilisers, but a promising means of fuelling international shipping, and transporting/storing hydrogen) from air, water and solar energy without the emissions or demands on energy and infrastructure made by the traditional Haber-Bosch method of ammonia production.

Said co-author UNSW’s Dr Emma Lovell, at the time: “The current way we make ammonia … produces more CO2 than any other chemical-making reaction. In fact, making ammonia consumes about 2 percent of the world’s energy and makes 1 percent of its CO2.”

Amal said the research showed, “We can use electrons from solar farms to make ammonia and then export our sunshine as ammonia rather than hydrogen.” 

Storage and transport of hydrogen as ammonia will be safer and more economical. As a gas, hydrogen requires an exceptional amount of space for storage unless you liquefy or compress it, “but liquid ammonia actually stores more hydrogen than liquid hydrogen itself,” explained Amal, “and so there has been increasing interest in the use of ammonia as a potential energy vector for a carbon-free economy.”

Batteries are fine, but why not onsite green fuel production for industry

In February, Amal was appointed by the NSW Office of the Chief Scientist & Engineer as head of a consortium made up of researchers from UNSW, the Universities of Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle, and the CSIRO. The remit of their combined NSW Power-to-X (P2X) Industry Feasibility Study, is “to grow a new industry that will use cheap excess renewable energy to make fuel, chemicals and feedstocks to power a range of New South Wales infrastructure”.

At the Australian Renewable Energy Zones Conference in May Amal talked about why using only batteries, a capital-intensive technology, to store renewable energy is a missed opportunity. 

With the P2X approach of converting excess renewable energy to chemical energy — as hydrogen, ammonia, methanol or hydrogen peroxide — “we can widen the reach of renewable power and repurpose it for use in other sectors while still maintaining stability in the grid”, she said.

These broadly applied chemicals “have historically been made in large, centralised industrial sites where capital costs and emissions are high”, said Amal, adding that they then have to be transported to a point of use.

With P2X, production of such chemicals can be decentralised, it can occur at or near the point of consumption, “with zero emissions and zero waste”, she summarised.

Pathways to decarbonising industry using green hydrogen, as illustrated by Rose Amal in her presentation to the Australian Renewable Energy Zone Conference in May.

Image: Scientia Professor Rose Amal, UNSW

Making it happen — exporting Australian sunlight

She believes that a significant opportunity for P2X is to supply a new hydrogen export industry — with Japan, Korea and the European Union among the markets  in line for Australia’s green hydrogen.

To advance this potential, Amal is also one of a consortium of research and industry partners, known as HySupply and  led by UNSW’s Associate Professor Iain MacGill, investigating the feasibility of a renewable-energy-based hydrogen supply chain between Germany and Australia.                 

Amal, who arrived in Australia from Indonesia 38 years ago to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering at UNSW, may have become accustomed to recognition — she has been awarded 2019 NSW Scientist of the Year and has received several prestigious engineering awards.

An inspiration to students and the teams she leads, she exemplifies how fundamental research can translate into a multi-dimensional contribution to economic prosperity and a better way of living.

In the early 1990s, her passion for sustainability was, she says, “focused on designing particle and catalyst systems to treat chemical pollutants so that they would not end up in our environment”.

Subsequently, the solar industry got lucky as she swung her skills towards designing nanomaterials for solar and chemical energy conversion applications, including photocatalysis for water and air purification and water splitting and engineering systems for solar processes that use the sun’s energy to generate clean fuel.

Putting it simply, Amal says, “Australia has abundant sunlight and we should do more in harnessing our solar power.”

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