THP-E206: Can The Coal Industry Clean Up It’s Act And Pivot To Hydrogen? Also, Using Quantum To Create New Catalysts.

April 17, 2023 • Paul Rodden • Season: 2023 • Episode: 206

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Welcome to The Hydrogen Podcast!

In episode 206, Bloomberg talks about cleaning up the coal industry. And Microsoft quantum computing gets into hydrogen. All of this on today’s hydrogen podcast.

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Start Here: The 6 Main Colors of Hydrogen


Bloomberg talks about cleaning up the coal industry. And Microsoft quantum computing gets into hydrogen. All of this on today’s hydrogen podcast.

So the big questions in the energy industry today are, how is hydrogen the primary driving force behind the evolution of energy? Where is capital being deployed for hydrogen projects globally? And where are the best investment opportunities for early adopters who recognize the importance of hydrogen? I will address the critical issues and give you the information you need to deploy capital. Those are the questions that will unlock the potential of hydrogen, and this podcast will give you the answers. My name is Paul Rodden, and welcome to the hydrogen podcast.

In an article in, Paul Burkhardt writes coal giant scrambles to run gas and hydrogen in South Africa, South Africa’s second biggest emitter aims to be among the continents biggest buyers of renewable energy, but for now Sasol limited remains firmly tied to hydrocarbons. The company that made its name producing synthetic fuel and chemicals from coal aims to reach net zero by 2050. That plan has been criticized as vague by activists and unrealistic by some analysts. OPEX recent surprise production cut may also spur some energy companies to revisit their green goals in light of higher oil prices, which largely determined some of Sasol’s products. curbing emissions will be an especially heavy lift for Sasol.

Its biggest plant produces more greenhouse gas than the global operations of oil companies. BP or marathon petroleum. CEO Fleetwood Grobler said the company is committed to its green future. The company just needs profitability to get there that starts with the dirtiest hydrocarbon, which has been the company’s lifeblood since it was founded in 1950. And what made it’s Secunda plant in central South Africa, the world’s single most polluting site. And then a quote from the CEO. We’ve got to focus on coal quality that’s impacting our operations. Sasol has exhausted the richest deposits at its mines, and what’s left doesn’t work well and processes that convert the mineral into fuel. He also said we’re working hard to remedy that. And so despite the recent uptick volatility in the oil price also has Grobler concerned, particularly if crude prices fall towards $40 a barrel. He also says I would be really worried at that point. Sasol strategy to cut emissions by 30% by 2030 also involves displacing one hydrocarbon with another. Reducing the 40 million tons of coal it mainly uses to make fuel each year by a quarter will mean finding enough natural gas which is more efficient and creates a lower emissions.

Analysts though are skeptical. According to a research note from JP Morgan, we still struggle to see how more gas makes long term since the US lender also found that investors especially in Europe are wary of the stock. The note also said an increasing number find it difficult to justify owning Sasol as climate concerns mount Grobler said that while the company arrived late to the green transition, it only came up with a plan around early 2021. The investors will be able to see its progress over the next five years. Sasol’s cheapest source of natural gas is the company’s own fields in Mozambique that bring the fuel to its operations through the 537 mile RompCo pipeline. The company is spinning $1 billion to find more in the region because it’s concerned about finding enough to replace coal beyond 2028 Grobler also said we are doubling down on our exploration in Mozambique. Otherwise, the company can fall back on its imports of liquefied natural gas or LNG a decision Sasol will need to make from 2025 allowing three years to prepare for the supply.

Import terminals capable of unloading the fuel in Maputo, Mozambique and a potential South African project in Richards Bay are still in the planning phases. Sasol’s largest plant the Secunda complex about 130 kilometers or 209 miles from Johannesburg, which produces more climate warming gases than either Portugal or Norway will need to more than double the proportion of gas used from 7%. This according to Grobler still, activists had been withering about Sasol’s approach and a quote from Tracey Davies, Director of Just Share which is a Cape Town based activist group. The lack of adequate details accountability measures and incentives means that Sasol does not have a feasible measurable plan for to achieve its emission reduction targets. Sasol transforms, it will also pay a growing fee for the carbon it emits. Grobler points out that South Africa is the only place where the company which also operates in the US and Europe, pays a carbon tax chief financial officer Hanre Rossouw has warned that the levies could potentially cut into the business and as green transition plans, the use of renewables for electricity will be another major element of the company reaching its 2030 target. Sasol has signed agreements with developers including Air Liquide and Total. For almost half the capacity will need to meet its 1.2 gigawatt renewable goal.

Adding more renewables to the mix will be difficult. South Africa has become overwhelmed by record power outages. While it’s programmed to buy electricity from private clean energy projects has been slowed by a lack of grid connections. State owned utility Escom holdings SOC governs the process that determines which stations get plugged in. Sasol is also exploring a green hydrogen project in South Africa’s west coast, which it hopes will provide an even cleaner fuel to someday replace natural gas. The Boegoebaai project would include a port developed by the struggling state owned port and rail company Transnet, it’s another plank and Sasol is complicated green transition plans that will require even more renewable energy. The Boegoebaai project is ending a pre feasibility study and is, quote, a work in progress. According to Grobler, declining to estimate the cost of green hydrogen plans, he says that is still in the very early phases. Okay, so a peek behind the curtain on a coal operator as it tries to transition into a greener space. And in this case, Sasol and South Africa, it’s really going to be interesting in the next 15 to 20 years to see just what that industry is going to do in order to embrace their movement through the energy transition. Now, certainly there are ways even today to make hydrogen from coal. And from everything that I’ve reading, it happens quite often in China, but in this case, with carbon being released into the atmosphere. But with Sasol, in particular, what still remains so clouded is just what their energy transition and Net Zero plans are.

I also know that there are several coal operators in the United States that are facing these same pressures to decarbonize and reach a net zero goal. And so I guess one of the biggest questions is, are they going to find a way to clean up coal? Or is the company going to pivot into natural gas and then into hydrogen? Obviously, only time will tell but it’s going to be a critical piece of the global energy mix to see what these coal operators do in order to decarbonize and reach that net zero goal by 2050. Next, in an article from Geek wire, Alan Boyle writes Microsoft Azure Quantum joins the quest to create new hydrogen fuel cell catalysts. Chemists and Microsoft as your quantum are teaming up with Johnson Matthey, a British based clean tech company to identify new types of catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells.

The project demonstrates how quantum information science can help reduce the automobile industry’s carbon footprint and address the challenge of climate change. And a quote from Nathan Baker, Senior Director of Partnerships for chemistry and materials at Microsoft said so far, Johnson Matthey has seen a two fold acceleration in quantum chemistry calculations and we’re just getting started. Both companies recognize that the discoveries needed to create a net zero carbon future will require significant breakthroughs in chemical and material science, and are enthusiastic about the difference we can make in the world together. catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells are another focus of Johnson Matthey’s business. Those chemicals facilitate the reaction that uses hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity with plain water as the exhaust but the most effective fuel cell catalyst available today is platinum, which is rare and expensive.

To drive down the cost. ohnson Mattheys researchers are trying to develop alternative alloy catalysts that use less platinum. That’s where as your quantum enters the picture. Quantum inspired algorithms which capitalize on some of the exotic twists of quantum physics are particularly well suited for simulating and optimizing complex interactions like the ones involved in designing new materials ranging from pharmaceuticals and fertilizers to fuel cell catalysts. As your quantum chemists help Johnson Matthey’s researchers develop new predictive modeling tools that had the effect of accelerating their nanoparticle simulations. The simulations were run on Azure HPC Microsoft’s cloud based supercomputing platform, and a quote from Glenn Jones, research manager at Johnson Matthey with Azure HPC we’ve seen about a 50% speed up and some of our chemistry calculations that we run, which is critical for r&d, because every second counts not just for getting the results quickly, but also in terms of cost and throughput. The work so far sets the stage for even bigger advances as full scale quantum computing hits its stride. Again, according to Jones, since we’re using Azure, we are quantum ready and on the path to tap into the power of quantum computers, once available in the cloud through the Azure quantum.

This will revolutionize how we conduct chemistry simulations. Alright, so it’s been a while since we’ve talked about some of the technological advancements in the hydrogen space, I thought this was a really fun article to see where a lot of simulation software is now being used to advance that hydrogen space, and in this case, Microsoft pairing with Johnson Matthey. And what really sounds like a digital twin simulation of new catalysts for the future of fuel cells. So why do I find this piece so intriguing? Well, several months ago, we talked about increasing the efficiencies within the hydrogen world, and really decreasing a lot of the costs involved in scaling up hydrogen platforms. And digital twins was a big solution in that space. And that’s what this really does feel like that by being able to show electron movement through different catalysts at the quantum level, really does accelerate the findings, and significantly decrease r&d costs for developing new fuel cells, which right now is of critical importance to be able to get fuel cells out at a good economic price.

All right, that’s it for me, everyone. If you have a second, I would really appreciate it. If you could leave a good review on whatever platform it is that you listen to Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google, YouTube, whatever it is, that would be a tremendous help to the show. And as always, if you ever have any feedback, you’re welcome to email me directly at And as always, take care. Stay safe. I’ll talk to you later.

Hey, this is Paul. I hope you liked this podcast. If you did and want to hear more. I’d appreciate it if you would either subscribe to this channel on YouTube, or connect with your favorite platform through my website at Thanks for listening. I very much appreciate it. Have a great day.