By Mathew Carr
Nov. 29, 2020 — LONDON: Listen to Andrew Horvath for just a few minutes and you get the impression the climate crisis is solved.
His answer is not Elon Musk’s shiny electric sports cars. But rather, Horvath has found a new way to use hydrogen, the most abundant substance in the universe.
Since the industrial revolution, coal-fired heat has turned steam turbines, churning out heat-trapping greenhouse gas as it powered humanity’s progress.
Now, Horvath says he has found a catalyst — catchily named, the Hydrogen Energy Release Optimizer or HERO — that enables the creation of industrial-strength heat from H2 made into a fuel. The heat reaches about 700 Celsius (1,300 Fahrenheit). His optimizer will probably be able to be retrofitted to work in legacy power plants and factories, cutting emissions to zero.
That means the climate transition can potentially happen in two decades, rather than three or four, as existing coal or natural gas boilers at factories can be replaced, while keeping the existing turbines and other equipment intact, he said.
Horvath’s product isn’t yet available and won’t be until 2022. Yet he’s confident he’s right, and perhaps climate activists like Greta Thunberg can start to worry about other challenges
The transition is “going to be very, very rapid,” he said in an interview. “We should be starting to look at the next problem.”
Telsa’s Musk is famously less bullish about the future of hydrogen, because it takes so much spare renewable power to make the green version of it.
Horvath’s confidence about hydrogen stems from the rationale that his catalyst provides one of the missing links of the climate crisis. What will provide demand for the clean hydrogen (H2) that’s produced from spare solar and wind when electricity supply is high and demand low?
His optimizers can.
Like Rolls Royce sells thrust to airlines, Horvath said he plans to sell heat to utilities and factories, keeping control of the catalyst’s intellectual property. Patents are pending.
Horvath says Star Scientific’s also deciding soon where in Australia to locate a production plant that will build the catalyst-using heat units.
He’s far from the only executive confident that green hydrogen will save the climate.
My daughter, Ayanna, and I drew up this rough, busy chart yesterday that shows how some of the world’s biggest and not-so-big companies are embracing hydrogen. Apologies to the 100s not mentioned.
Which country will install the first Star catalyst unit is a question Horvath says he’s wrestling with today. It could be power stations or factories in the Philippines or Indonesia, which are fairly close to potential big H2 production facilities in Australia. It could be the U.S., where utilities are desperate to find a use for fossil-fuel stations under threat of closure.
Another option might be oil refineries in Europe mulling their future as the energy transition takes place.
It could be Germany, where utilities are struggling with sustained higher carbon prices that make almost-new coal stations loss making.
Swedish energy company Vattenfall is considering shutting its newest and largest coal-fired power station in Germany, the 1.6 gigawatt-capacity Moorburg plant in the city of Hamburg.
There is no deal between Vattenfall and Star Scientific. And there may not be one. Indeed, the utility group is participating in an auction where Germany is offering payments to companies that shut plants by June. Results should be known next month.
“We are participating with Moorburg in the first round of the German coal phase-out auctions and are now waiting for the decision of the German Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur),” the utility said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “If Moorburg is not awarded compensation, we will continue to consider different options for the plant, including switch of fuel. However, we cannot disclose any specific information about these alternatives at this stage.”
What decides which country gets the first Star Scientific optimiser unit is whether there’s enough H2 to supply it.
The German government earlier this month confirmed it’s considering selling government incentives that would protect green hydrogen-production units against a fall in the region’s carbon price. The required policy building blocks are falling into place.
Starting in July last year, Star and Origin Energy conducted a feasibility study to better understand how the optimizer can adapt to the existing electricity generation technology at Origin’s 2.8 GW Eraring coal-fired power station in the state of New South Wales, Australia. There’s no suggestion of a future deal between Star and Origin.
Star Scientific is a finalist in the S&P Global Platts 2020 energy awards:
Here is a story about how the EU is incentivizing hydrogen:
Terrific FT/Equinor animation here:
(More to come, updates Sunday afternoon with Rolls Royce business strategy, Sunday evening London time with extra information)