Where is the “sweet spot” for the production of green hydrogen?
Probably not where you think.
Could it be the syrup from the agave plant or sugar cane?
Believe it or not, both are in front to qualify as the most economically viable feedstock to produce green hydrogen as a transport fuel or to generate electricity.
In a small laboratory in the Create Building in NUS University Town, there’s work going on right now to establish the best way for Singapore – often described as “renewable energy challenged” – to produce or acquire green hydrogen, to replace natural gas, which currently fuels almost all of its electricity needs.
American energy technologist Joseph Maceda runs the energy research project – with the help of three scientists and two engineers – basing it on the “proprietary, low-temperature, liquid-phase, electrochemical technology platform” developed by his mentor, the late Dr Patrick Grimes.
Mr Maceda has been working on various “natural sources” to support clean energy production for years.
When Singapore heard about his work, the country invited him here, as affordable green hydrogen was top of mind.
As Chief Designer and CEO of Singapore-based 3G&S Technologies, he set up the company after being introduced to Singapore by local engineer Fong Saik Hay, as they’ve known each other for 30 years, initially working together on fuel cell technology for the automobile sector.
When I met Mr Maceda at the Sustainability Professionals ASEAN Network (SPAN) event at ParkRoyal Collection Marina Bay in June, I thought serendipity was at play, as attending at the same time was Singapore-based serial clean energy investor Allard Nooy, who in 2022 was appointed as President of Asia for Andrew Forest’s Fortescue Future Industries (FFI).
While they both have clean energy and hydrogen in common, they draw from very different feedstocks and processes.
The global market for green hydrogen is booming
What interests them both is the size of the global market for green hydrogen, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates will be worth US$48 billion by 2030.
That’s putting a price of US$6 for a kilogram of green hydrogen.
According to Mr Maceda, “It’s very expensive and energy-intensive to produce green hydrogen by splitting water (H2O) by electrolysis – using renewable energy – and safely shipping hydrogen to where it’s needed.”
Using the agave syrup – or cane sugar – as a feedstock and shipping it to Singapore, processed into Grimes Green Hydrogen (GGH), is the best and cheapest way to supply “the cleanest fuel of the future”.
And with the major challenge of decarbonising the global economy at hand, various alternative technologies for green hydrogen can co-exist.
Mr Maceda claims he can produce GGH for over US$2 a kg by 2030.
So, how close are they to seeing production at the scale of GGH in Singapore, using the well-tested Grimes formula with agave syrup or sugar cane?
The aim is to have a demonstration model ready to showcase for the first time at this year’s Asia Clean Energy Summit (ACES) during Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) from 23 to 27 October.
The two advocates for this “nature-based solution” – Messrs Maceda and Fong – showed me charts demonstrating the economic viability of green hydrogen production.
A 200 kg/d GGH pilot plant could be operational in Singapore by the end of 2024.
Partnerships with growers and producers in Australia and Brazil
Together with their feedstock expert, Frank Nadimi, they have been lining up partnerships with potential agave growers and sugar cane suppliers in Australia and Brazil, which they see as the best source of supply as there’s unlikely to be any shortage of land to grow sufficient feedstock for green hydrogen production.
So, how much syrup is needed to produce green hydrogen for Singapore?
To meet 5% of Singapore’s electricity needs, for example, would require 125,000 tons of green hydrogen, which can come from 16 tanks – or 1.5 million tons – of agave or sugar cane syrup. That means 20 shiploads on 80,000 DWT long-range tankers.
Mr Maceda has all the numbers:
- Between 2025 and 2035, 1.8 billion tons of sugar cane could be sourced from 20 million hectares of land in several countries.
- From 2030 and beyond, agave plants (4-5 year growth cycle) could supply feedstock from 2 billion hectares of semi-arid non-food land available worldwide. Australia alone could have 270 million hectares available.
- Singapore’s total electrical needs would only require 150,000 hectares per year to supply 30 million tons of syrup (agave and/or cane)
Mr Maceda also tells me that his team can also effectively capture and convert CO2 to Syngas, which can be further processed into Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) simultaneously.
But that’s another story.
For the record, Joseph Maceda describes himself as someone who has been” in technology development for over 40 years and is now focusing on restoring agriculture to its historical place as the primary support of civilisation”.
Decarbonisation can only be achieved by eliminating fossil fuels
He points out that since 1820 we’ve adopted fossil fuels to support the Industrial Revolution, and that has to end.
“The technologies now exist to integrate the production of electricity, fuel, food, fertiliser and water in a Zero-Net or Negative-Carbon manner that can be deployed in modular, distributed systems everywhere that can compete with fossil sources on price, without subsidy”, he said.
Drawing on the pioneering work of Dr Grimes and his revolutionary approach to using a fruity solution to speed up the transition to clean renewable energy, Mr Maceda and his team are also addressing energy security without using land and resources needed for food production.
We now know that the easy-to-grow agave plant, which flourishes in semi-arid desert-like locations, along with the energy-rich sugar cane, is in line to make a big difference in meeting Singapore’s clean energy needs into the future, significantly reducing its reliance on fossil fuels.
Read about the agave plant and its role in the global energy market for more information.