Scott Morrison at the Star Scientific hydrogen research facility
Scott Morrison at the Star Scientific hydrogen research facility (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The poster child for the government’s “technology over taxes” climate policy is Star Scientific, a small hydrogen company based on the NSW Central Coast. But what exactly is it, and what does it do?

It has only a handful of employees and by its own admission is years away from having a commercially viable product. But that hasn’t stopped the prime minister from holding it up as symbolic of its commitment to address climate change — even as his government piles money into fossil fuels.

Hydrogen hype

Scott Morrison used Star Scientific’s headquarters as the site of a press conference and photo-op last week where he talked up the prospects of new hydrogen technologies to help lower emissions.

“Hydrogen is zero emissions gas,” he said. “Whether it’s in Gladstone or whether it’s, say, in the Hunter or other places, that’s what this does.”

Energy Minister Angus Taylor told ABC radio the next day that Star Scientific was an example of a company whose technology would allow Australia “to use our coal-fired generators with zero emissions”.

“These technologies are advancing fast. This is not about declaring war on industries,” he said.

And Sky News featured an “exclusive” look inside Star Scientific’s headquarters the same day, spruiking the company’s trademark technology.

What is it?

Star Scientific isn’t a new company. It has been investing in research and development into hydrogen from its Berkeley Vale facilities for the better part of 20 years.

Its “hero” technology converts hydrogen into heat without combustion, and like most hydrogen products can be used with either “blue” hydrogen from fossil fuels or “green” hydrogen from renewables.

But despite receiving significant backing from investors, the company tells Crikey it is still several years away from creating a viable commercial product due to a lack of supply of green hydrogen.

“We aim to be serving our first strictly commercial customers within three years,” it said.

Its technology is “agnostic” about the colour of the hydrogen it uses, but its potential customers want green hydrogen: “[The] industry is looking for carbon-free sources of heat and energy. The move to green hydrogen therefore is demand-driven.”

RenewEconomy founder and editor Giles Parkinson said it was bizarre that the government was prioritising unproven technologies over run-of-the-mill renewables.

“We’re at the very early stages of this technology — it may or may not work, there’s absolutely no way of knowing — and it’s extraordinary that they’re so willing to embrace it yet have such disdain for established technology like battery, wind and solar,” he said.

“It’s exciting we’re doing this research and development. But to hold this up as some sort of solution to the coal industry is just bizarre.”

Years off

The government’s climate policy has been to throw money at hydrogen and carbon capture and storage instead of increasing its emissions targets — all the while pouring billions of dollars into fossil-fuel subsidies every year despite huge shifts in policy around the world to meet net-zero emissions.

The UK’s conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made radical climate change commitments that will set the UK on a course to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. But in Australia the Coalition has doubled down on its approach, signalling $275 million in “hydrogen hubs” over the next five years.

Analysts say that although the kind of hydrogen Star Scientific is researching may have a future in Australia, it doesn’t address the urgent need for climate action.

“This technology is decades away before it can really contribute meaningfully,” Climate Council spokesman and energy expert Greg Bourne said.

“Only renewable hydrogen, generated through solar and wind, can play a clear role in Australia’s zero emissions future.”

Is this clever thinking on the government’s part, or just more hot air? Write to Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.