For the first time in the world, a hydrogen car has been powered by a fuel derived from ammonia, thanks to our hydrogen membrane tech. And now that tech is being commericalised to help bring a hydrogen industry closer to reality.
Man filling a hydrogen car with fuel

This the very first time in the world that a hydrogen car has been powered by a fuel derived from ammonia, making it carbon-free

Hydrogen has been dubbed ‘the fuel of the future’ but thanks to our scientists, that future could be much sooner than we think. We’ve created a metal membrane that filters out pure hydrogen gas from ammonia. It can then be dispensed into fuel cell cars, buses and even trucks. And the technology isn’t just fantasy, we recently powered fuel cell electric vehicles using locally-produced ultra-high purity hydrogen. And now the technology is being commercialised via a partnership with Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. The investment in our hydrogen membrane technology will help steer us towards a domestic hydrogen industry, with the potential for future global uptake.

We’re hyper for hydrogen for many reasons:

  1. It’s highly abundant in the atmosphere.
  2. It’s clean – when burnt it gives off water instead of carbon dioxide.
  3. It’s highly adaptable – it can be burnt like petrol or produce electricity in a portable fuel cell like a battery.
  4. It can also be generated using many different methods, for instance, the generation of electricity using renewable sources like solar. Did we mention it’s clean?!

The hydrogen molecule is made up of two protons and two electrons. The reaction of hydrogen with oxygen results in a net release of energy. This can be achieved through traditional means – for example, by combustion or using a fuel cell. When used in a fuel cell, a chemical reaction between the hydrogen molecule and oxygen creates an electrical current.

There are some challenges though. For instance, its low density makes the gas bulky and difficult to transport and store.

Transport troubles

You might not know this, but we’ve been here before. For centuries we knew about the existence and potential of natural gas as a fuel source, but without the ability to store and transport natural gas safely and efficiently, it was an impractical fuel option. By the 1900s, scientists had worked out how to liquefy natural gas (LNG) but it was sometime later that it could be stored in tanks, exported, regasified and used on a commercial scale. Fast forward to this year and Australia is projected to become the world’s largest LNG exporter, and our LNG production is expected to hit 10 per cent of the global crude production by 2020.

Hydrogen is following a strangely similar path. We know hydrogen has huge potential as a fuel. We even know it could be easily transported and stored in the form of ammonia (NH3). But, until now, the challenge remained: how can we extract pure hydrogen at the point of need – for example, at a fuelling station? Enter: our hydrogen membrane technology.

Decomposed ammonia becomes pure hydrogen
An animation shows ammonia molecules passing through a membrane to become hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be extracted from ammonia, first by using a catalyst to help decompose the ammonia molecule into a mixture of nitrogen and hydrogen gas. Then, the hydrogen membrane allows hydrogen to pass through it while blocking any other gas.


So what’s in store?

Australia’s energy needs are changing, and momentum on hydrogen is growing both nationally and internationally. The hydrogen council predicts that by 2050, hydrogen will make up 15 per cent of global energy demand, with annual sales of hydrogen and equipment of $2.5 trillion! Our work on alternative fuel options is proving critical in preparing for a reliable, economical and sustainable energy future.

There is now the very real potential for a national renewable hydrogen export industry, and a growing global market for clean hydrogen. With this world-first membrane technology, hydrogen now has the potential to rival the LNG industry.

Working with Fortescue Metals Group Ltd further hydrogen R&D technologies we hope to build new Australian industries and support opportunities for low emissions exports.

We're insane for hydrogen membranes


  1. Petty detail: nitrogen is the part that is abundant. I am in favour of renewable energy, but it will take a lot of it to make a big hole in fossil fuels. Solar and wind farms are always quoted by maximum – MW when the sun is shining brightly and the wind blowing at the right speed The number of farms so far provides only a small fraction of static customers’ needs. Hydrogen via (not from) ammonia will have a lot of competition for a limited resource for a long time.

  2. My hope is the technology remains under Australian ownership so Australians are the main beneficiaries,so much developed in the past by our Csiro have gone overseas.

  3. What happens to the nitrogen/nitrates? I think any new source is great but it’s time to think about all end products or waste and how this will be utilised and/ or impact the environment. Not a scientist here but have studied a lot of sciences.

    1. Hi Kaz,
      There are no nitrates. Nitrogen gas (N2) is released into the atmosphere.
      CSIRO Social Media

  4. What is the potential for using solar or other renewables to crack water into hydrogen & oxygen then combining the hydrogen with atmospheric nitrogen to make ammonia. Maybe more complicated but endlessly renewable and eliminates the ghg issues of natural gas?

    1. Hi Rod,
      Yes, we expect that hydrogen production will become increasingly renewable in the coming years. This will make the hydrogen/ammonia fuel cycle increasingly less GHG intensive.
      CSIRO Social Media

  5. Interesting and exciting stuff! What happens to the N2 gas that isn’t allowed past the metal membrane? Presumably it needs venting somehow to maintain storage vessel pressure?

    1. Hi Andrew,
      We passed your comment on to our scientists and this is their response:
      “Currently we vent nitrogen into the atmosphere. We’d likely do the same in a commercial plant as nitrogen has little value. If there is a customer nearby who needs nitrogen then they can take the off gas.”
      CSIRO Social Media

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