Perhaps only a boy from the Pilbara with a PhD could combine WA’s biggest exports — iron ore and gas — to produce two products of the future, hydrogen and graphite.
Andrew Cornejo earned a PhD at the University of WA looking at better ways to produce hydrogen.
He is now the chief technology officer and second-biggest shareholder of ASX-listed Hazer Group, which is developing the UWA technology.
The “cracking” of natural gas, or methane, into hydrogen and carbon dioxide produces about 95 per cent of the world’s hydrogen but the greenhouse gas by-product is increasingly unwelcome.
Electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, needs large volumes of energy so has the same greenhouse problem as cracking unless renewable energy is used.
Dr Cornejo’s solution was to split methane into hydrogen and graphite, yielding a material in demand for lithium batteries instead of carbon dioxide.
He said other technologies that produced hydrogen and graphite from methane required either expensive catalysts or a large amount of energy. “I’ve always been from the simplicity-is-best approach,” he said.
The solution was a cheap catalyst the Tom Price-raised mechanical engineer was familiar with — iron ore.
During his PhD the graphite produced was measured in milligrams. Now Hazer’s pilot plant in Sydney has a capacity of almost 30kg a day.
“This is a technology that is showing every potential of scaling very well,” he said.
A year ago Chris Ellison’s Mineral Resources, the biggest shareholder in Hazer, agreed to fund the development of a large-scale plant to produce ultra-high-purity graphite. MinRes is building a pilot plant at Kwinana.
Hazer has a Sydney-based pilot plant using a different technology focused on hydrogen production that it plans to move to the MinRes Kwinana site.
Hazer shares yesterday closed up 3 per cent to 37.5¢.