Brown coal (or lignite) has fallen out of favour with the big push for renewables and lower carbon emissions – but could the old dog be taught new tricks?

Environmental Clean Technologies (ASX:ECT) company secretary Adam Giles thinks so.

He reckons brown coal still has a role to play – especially when it comes to the blue vs green hydrogen debate.

“There’s a war for hydrogen going on at the moment between green and blue,” he said.

“With green hydrogen the fact is, it’s got a real struggle to get down in price to enter the export market here in Australia.

“It can compete with some domestic applications in terms of transport but it’s got to reduce its capital and OPEX costs by a further to 75% from where they sit now, just to get down to where brown coal already is.”

Could coal pivot and take a slice of the pie?

“There’s a misnomer out there that coal is dead,” Giles said.

“I think coal for power generation is absolutely dying – but there’s going to be a big pivot, especially in the Latrobe Valley of that resource towards hydrogen production at a scalable level and at a cost level that will meet the export requirements of the Asian market in a way that wind and solar can’t.”

“The Japanese are looking for a scalable and cost-effective solution and while wind and solar are definitely in the mix – they’re very, very expensive compared to the fossil fuel route.

“Even with CCS added to it fossil fuels are a lot cheaper.

“Wind and solar have a huge hurdle ahead of them to even start competing on the export market.”

So how does lignite produce hydrogen?

“Catalytic, organic, hydrogen generation (COHgen) is a real fancy way of saying we take the lignite and we extract the hydrogen from that in a manner that is lowering carbon emissions, and cheaper and more energy efficient than current off the shelf technology,” Giles said.

“Development is needed there to scale up, but we’re working with a number of cooperative research centres, CSIRO and a couple of other bodies to push that forward.”

The interesting part of the process is that the majority of the carbon remains in solid form, which Giles said helps to overcome the biggest objection to the use of lignite for hydrogen production – CO2 emissions.

Plus, minimising CO2 emissions also has the benefit of reducing the subsequent cost of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Latrobe Valley has 500 years’ worth

With the emerging interest in blue hydrogen (or CCS hydrogen) Giles says there’s a genuine interest which stems from the fact that the Latrobe Valley is one of the largest lignite resources in the world.

“We’ve got about 500 years’ worth of resource there, it’s extremely low in cost and it’s actually extremely high quality from a sulphur point of view,” he said.

The company has already demonstrated a successful Coldry pilot plant and is now working on a small-scale commercial demonstration plant which it hopes will validate plans for a large-scale commercial plant in the Latrobe Valley.