University of Canterbury Chemical and Process Engineering academics Professor Shusheng Pang and Associate Professor Alex Yip are focusing on using renewable biomass – such as tree and plant waste from New Zealand’s forestry and agriculture sectors – to make green hydrogen. This clean energy source can be used to replace fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas, for transport, industry use, and heating our homes.
Professor Pang, who has a background in wood science and technology, explains: “One of our current projects is working on converting biomass into hydrogen. Hydrogen is clean energy with huge potential for creating a more sustainable future, however 95% of the hydrogen currently used in the world comes from fossil fuels.
“To replace these fossil fuels, derived green hydrogen requires multiple, renewable resources. New Zealand’s forestry industry is well positioned to meet this biomass demand. Currently New Zealand harvests 36 million cubic metres of logs annually and only 40% is processed within New Zealand, with the remaining 60% exported as raw logs. We can use biowaste from forest harvesting and wood processing, as well as low quality logs, for the value-added green hydrogen,” Professor Pang says.
“Working with Hot Lime Labs, a new starting company in Lower Hutt, we also capture CO2 (greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) to make the whole process carbon-negative. We develop new catalysts – which is Alex’s expertise – to make the process more efficient.”
Carbon dioxide captured from this process could be used in plant greenhouses, fertiliser manufacturing and methanol or ethanol production.
Associate Professor Yip says, “We are using a unique approach based on new technology in catalysis to simultaneously generate high-purity hydrogen and enable CO2 capture. The overall process ‘unlocks’ the potential of using New Zealand biomass, such as trees, plants, and other renewable resources, which are abundant here.
“None of the currently used production methods in New Zealand can provide enough hydrogen to meet the country’s demand singlehandedly. So, New Zealand needs our approach of generating bio-hydrogen from a renewable resource – tree and plant waste.”
More about the project:
The University of Canterbury Engineering researchers are developing breakthrough Deep Tech platforms to produce green hydrogen using local renewables, specifically biomass resources, solar energy, and water, through innovative design and integration of biomass gasification and thermochemical water-splitting with CO2 capture and sequestration through mineralisation.
The project aims to increase the hydrogen yield through the integration of CO2 capture during the gas processing that tunes equilibrium chemistry to drive improved reaction efficiencies in biomass gasification with thermochemical water-splitting.
There are other potential positive impacts. Iwi and their corporations have significant interests in forestry resources and industry, including seeking high value uses that enhance kaitiakitanga. The UC researchers aim to include tangata whenua, especially forest owners, in the advisory committee to realise these cultural and economic benefits. A significant shift in renewable fuels development will also enable fossil fuel-intensive industries and exporters to achieve low-emission products at a low cost. In addition, this process will substitute significant fossil fuel imports for local produce, use local renewable and sustainable resources, and return the waste sustainably to the land while helping clean up the environment.
The research has been supported by MBIE with a $1 million Smart Ideas grant in the 2019 Endeavour Funding round.
This research can and will impact society as we look for more efficient solutions to modern challenges UC Vice-Chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey said at the time. “Funding of Professor Pang’s research into smart and renewable energy highlights the importance of this area for Government, an ambition that also aligns with University of Canterbury’s commitment to local and regional development,” she said.