Clean Hydrogen from Dirty Sources

Dean Sigler Fuel Cells, Hydrogen Fuel, Sustainable Aviation 2 Comments

Proton Technologies of Calgary, Canada has a startling approach to obtaining clean hydrogen – extraction from some of the dirtiest sources on earth.  Considering the company plans to pull hydrogen from fairly filthy tar sands, their Hygenic Earth Energy almost seems like a misnomer.

Tar sands oil extraction has been enormously controversial, with issues including arboreal forest destruction, native tribal displacement, and air and water pollution.

Proton hopes to ameliorate these problems in Alberta and elsewhere with adherence to this mission statement: “To rapidly transform energy systems worldwide—profitably and sustainably—might sound like a dream.  However it is entirely reasonable, perhaps inevitable, if you accept…

“Four Key Premises:

“1. Hydrogen is the foundation to a sustainable energy future

“2. The high cost and carbon emissions from hydrogen production are the only remaining obstacles

“3. Proton’s hygenic earth energy eliminates these obstacles

“4. The massive existing hydrogen market allows for rapid commercialization.”

Testing Their Premises

To develop their dream and test the real-world implications of their process, Proton acquired the Superb (the trade name) air injection test facility near Kerrobert, Saskatchewan.  The facility will enable Proton to “de-risk” technology development and improve timelines and cost efficiencies.

The site will enable Proton to steam heat residual carbon deposits (oil, natural gas) and extract only hydrogen while leaving fossil fuels in the ground.  Seeming a bit like fracking, the process is not intended to crack underground rocks, but to extract hydrogen.  Proton describes is thus: “By injecting oxygen into oil wells to combust the trapped hydrocarbons, Proton can generate enough heat in the process to produce hydrogen gas. This process leaves carbon sources trapped beneath the Earth’s surface in the form of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and other gases, while removing only hydrogen gas.

Proton’s Dr. Ian Gates, also of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Calgary, explains, “There are vast oil sand reservoirs in several countries, with huge fields in Alberta in Canada, but also in Venezuela and other countries.”

Grant Strem, CEO of Proton Technologies says “This technique can draw up huge quantities of hydrogen while leaving the carbon in the ground. When working at production level, we anticipate we will be able to use the existing infrastructure and distribution chains to produce H2 for between 10 and 50 cents per kilo. This means it potentially costs a fraction of gasoline for equivalent output”. This compares with current H2 production costs of around $2/kilo. Around 5% of the H2 produced then powers the oxygen production plant, so the system more than pays for itself.”

With greater public availability and such low prices, companies such as ZeroAvia would be able to offer low-cost aerial taxis at previously unheard of rates while avoiding the 100LL smog that threatens private aviation’s future.

Hidden (So Far) Distribution

With only 50 (up from 31 three years ago) publicly-available hydrogen fueling stations in the US – mostly in California – and one in Canada, finding H2 for your fuel cell car or airplane may seem a dim prospect.  Commercial and municipal sources seem to abound, though, according to an Energy Department publication, State of the States: Fuel Cells in America 2016, 7th Edition Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

The current administration has not updated this report, which used to be updated on a more regular basis.

Extending the future of far-flung oil and gas fields without expanding their polluting influence on the atmosphere would certainly seem worth exploring.  A seemingly unlimited resource awaits, along with a cleaner future.

Comments 2

  1. So, we replace nonrenewable fossil fuels with nonrenewable H extracted from them in a process that resembles fracking? We get MAY get vast quantities of MAYBE very cheap H for a while (Realistic estimates on that if we ramp up H consumption to full potential…definitely not unlimited), but then what? That doesn’t sound like sustainable tech to me and I have wonder about possible yet unknown/unmentioned enviro risks.

    Admittedly it would be nice to have very cheap H for a while and this process, and so IF it’s all that it’s billed to be, it would meet a market demand more cheaply than others, and yet what we really need is a truly sustainable and virtually unlimited source of H as cheap as possible to be used in applications where H makes sense (all parameters weighed) and to be used in processes for renewable liquid hydrocarbon production.

    There is great ongoing progress toward making truly renewable H…

    (Editor’s Note: Excellent comment with great backup materials. Your editor’s favorite possible future would be to have distributed, clean energy generated H2 at “service stations” or flight centers. Industry is already doing this for forklifts and service vehicles, so it’s definitely doable.)

  2. I suspect the emphasis on building out a hydrogen distribution network is misplaced. If the hydrogen can be converted to alcohol then the only parts of the existing system that need changing are the plants that make gasoline.

    Converting hydrogen and CO2 to alcohol and methanol:

    Seems there’s a catalyst for that, commercially viable if there happens to be a cheap source of hydrogen.

    Pipe hydrogen to a natural gas electricity generator, capture the Co2, catalyse the two into liquid fuel, and distribute via existing channels. As EVs take over, which they will regardless (just a matter of when) and the demand for liquid fuel drops, convert the plant to run on hydrogen instead of natural gas.

    No, it’s not perfect. But, it can be done quickly and might buy us the time we need. Alberta oil-sands could actually be the solution to global warming.

    As for available reserves… the same report said the Alberta oil-sands could provide all the electricity needed (current levels) in Canada for 330 years. The same technology also works on regular oil wells, including those already depleted.

    The only 2 points that really could shoot it down are:

    1) The carbon, methane, and other byproducts don’t reliably stay underground.

    2) They’re not being upfront on real production costs and it stops being financially viable.

    Time will tell.

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