Picking up the Pace

Road transport is at the vanguard of change towards net-carbon neutral emissions. At Viva Energy Sandra Lau is at the tip of the spear.

During the past decade natural gas and biofuels have demonstrated they were worthwhile steps using available technologies.

The practicality of fully electric vehicles has rapidly increased due to significant advances in battery energy storage, both in terms of energy density and cost.

A more radical and effective solution may be in the adaption of hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Sandra Lau is the Alternative Fuels Manager at Viva Energy, which through its Shell brand is responsible for around one quarter of Australia’s fuel needs.

Sandra has Bachelor degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Commerce, as well as an MBA.

Her years of practical experience in mining and downstream oil and gas industries have provided Sandra with a unique appreciation of the opportunities for alternative fuels. Sandra also serves on the Board of the Australian Hydrogen Council.

Energy has always interested Sandra, especially in terms of how it can be used to improve things.

“It’s very easy to be idealistic how we should be managing our energy needs but it’s a lot harder to make the dial shift,” she says. “It is an exciting time for the energy industry and how we make our way in the new world, and I feel privileged to have a job where I can entirely focus on it.”

Despite an apparent reduction in interest in domestic biodiesel production, Sandra thinks there is a good potential role for biodiesel blends in the future with some infrastructure already in place and an acceptance of certain blend percentage levels by a number of engine manufacturers.

“The challenge in Australia is the first-generation biodiesel market is under huge pressure with international incentives, so our feedstock is getting exported,” says Sandra. “There is some promise with biodiesel as a renewable fuel but probably from the second- generation technologies.”

Sandra Lau.

There are a number of companies globally looking at different second-generation technologies and commercial scale plants to make renewable diesel using different feedstocks such as forestry and agricultural waste.

Sandra is enthusiastic about the potentials to be found in hydrogen fuel cell power due to the energy density it offers and the almost-zero emissions, yet she remains pragmatic in her view of the near future.

“We need a scaled industry to get a cheap price for hydrogen per kilogram, but we also need a market to get it to achieve scale. A price of two dollars per kilogram would be competitive with diesel but it’s nowhere near that now,” she says.

“Battery-electric has its place in the market, yet there is so much potential in hydrogen.”

Sandra also points to the requirements in the transport and fuelling infrastructure required for a roll out of hydrogen cell vehicles, with challenges in the transport of hydrogen as a gas, at volume, from a technical perspective. It takes a lot of energy to liquefy hydrogen and keep it in a liquid state at minus 253 degrees Celsius.

“Transporting ammonia has its challenges but they are known challenges,” says Sandra. “If you’re looking at large scale transport of hydrogen in an alternative form, then the hydrogen in the form of ammonia makes a lot of sense.

“Australia’s CSIRO had a breakthrough with membrane technology a couple of years ago in which hydrogen can be stored and transported as ammonia and then converted to hydrogen gas where needed. We already have established transport systems where ammonia can be transported as a liquid at ambient temperature and pressure. Alternatively, we could one day see an ammonia fuel cell and then you won’t need to convert it, but that’s very far into the future.”

As it stands, there needs to be a level of synergy between vehicle manufacturers and fuel providers as the next revolution in fuels and drivelines occurs.

“A global OEM engine manufacturer may see a different market they want to address first, whether it be electric or hydrogen fuel cell. There’s already some fuel cell vehicles on the market and they are very good and have been proven and there’s still some evolution to come in the fuel cell drivetrain,” Sandra says.

“In 2020 we saw the electric vehicle market slowing a little bit and hydrogen was previously a couple of steps behind in the stages of development but now it’s all happening with more OEMs coming to market now from a fuel cell perspective. I think 2021 will see the battery and the fuel cell OEMs picking up the pace significantly”.