Last week Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) announced the formation of a partnership that will support commercialization of CSIRO’s high-purity ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion technology. Michael Dolan, Principal Research Scientist for the ammonia-to-hydrogen project, had signaled such a development on the occasion of the technology’s first public demonstration in August 2018, saying in a contemporaneous Ammonia Energy post that the identity of “a major industrial partner” would be revealed shortly.
The partner turns out to be Fortescue Metals Group (FMG). A November 22 article in Business Insider Australia states that the company will invest “[AUD]$19.1 million [USD$13.8] in technology developed by the CSIRO to make hydrogen vehicles viable in a potential gamechanger for the transport industry.”
The CSIRO technology converts ammonia to hydrogen in a two-stage process. In the first stage, a ruthenium catalyst cracks ammonia into its constituent elements. The CSIRO breakthrough is embodied in the second stage, where a vanadium metal membrane separates hydrogen from other gases. At the time of the demonstration, CSIRO had incorporated these core elements in a fully functional system that could start with liquid ammonia and end with compressed hydrogen that meets ISO specifications for fuel cell vehicles.
The next major step in CSIRO’s technology development plan, according to Dolan, is a “commercial-scale demonstration” that will increase apparatus capacity by an order of magnitude. Two such systems will be installed, “one in Australia and one at an international location.” This part of the effort has a budget of AUD$10 million.
And this is where FMG comes in. The company has agreed to invest in CSIRO’s “hydrogen-related technologies” over the next five years, with the detailed parameters of the investment program to be established over time. For the present, the FMG press release says only that “the first of the agreements will focus on CSIRO’s metal membrane technology.”
According to FMG’s Web site, the company was founded in 2003 and is the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer. It has “operations spanning three iron ore mine sites in the Pilbara, the five-berth Herb Elliott Port in Port Hedland and the fastest heavy haul railway in the world.” The company is publicly held, with its shares trading on the Australian Securities Exchange as well as Germany’s Frankfurt, Munich, and Dusseldorf Stock Exchanges. It recorded fiscal 2018 net profit of USD$878 million on revenues of USD$6.9 billion.
FMG’s founder, Andrew Forrest, is Australian, but the company has a strong Chinese orientation. Forbes.com states that “Fortescue Metals Group . . . mines and ships iron ore to China.” The annual report refers to “four pillars of engagement [with China]: supply, procurement, investment and community engagement.” Hunan Valin Steel Group of Changsha, China is cited as a “major shareholder.” The Financial Times reported in 2009 that Hunan Valin had purchased a 16.5% stake in FMG.
FMG does not have an extensive history of investment outside its core mining business. It appears that Forrest found a compelling thesis in Australia’s prospects as a supplier of green fuels:
“We are at the beginning of an energy revolution and Fortescue intends to be at the forefront of this once in a generation opportunity. As a proud Australian company, we are excited to partner with CSIRO, our nation’s preeminent science and research body, to unlock the potential of hydrogen, the low emission fuel of the future. By combining CSIRO’s global leading research and development with Fortescue’s capability to rapidly develop new technologies, we will firmly establish our position in the global hydrogen industry. Importantly, we see potential for a significant export market in hydrogen and look forward to collaborating with third parties to ensure Australia’s leadership in the new energy economy.”
FMG Chairman Andrew Forrest quoted in Fortescue and CSIRO enter into landmark partnership to develop and commercialise hydrogen technology, November 22, 2018.
Toyota and Hyundai were listed as supporters of the CSIRO ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion program in a May 2017 CSIRO press release. Both companies provided practical support during the August 2018 demonstration.