Does Hydrogen Have a Role to Play in a Clean-Energy Future?

Video screen capture. Proton Technologies/ heating up the underground reservoir

New technology might actually pull hydrogen out of the Alberta tar sands and leave the carbon behind.

This TreeHugger has long been skeptical of hydrogen, suspecting it to be a way of keeping us tied forever to the oil and gas companies who would distribute "grey" hydrogen made from natural gas while promising "green" hydrogen some day. I have repeatedly called the hydrogen economy a fantasy.

But Tyler Hamilton, a respected science writer (and formerly my editor at Corporate Knights Magazine), writes in the Globe and Mail that Hydrogen has a major role to play in the clean-energy future.

Over the past year, hydrogen has re-emerged as one of the most promising answers. Mostly because it’s such a versatile fuel, but also because the cost of producing “green” hydrogen using renewable electricity or other low-carbon processes is rapidly falling. Our cars, buses and delivery vans may be going battery-electric, and batteries may be a big part of the answer to energy storage on the electrical grid. But green hydrogen, according to the International Energy Agency, offers what batteries can’t – a flexible way to decarbonize ships, trains, and big airplanes, displace the use of natural gas for heating, and replace fossil fuels used by heavy industry.

Hamilton points to a company in Calgary, Proton Technologies Inc, which has developed a way of separating hydrogen from the oil sands while leaving the carbon in the ground, a process that they call Hygenic Earth Energy or HEE. "We’re creating a continuous source of green, clean and affordable energy from deep earth. We’re meeting a huge market need with a rapidly scalable solution."

It's based on a process tried in the 1980s when scientists were figuring out how to get oil out of the oil sands. The Marguerite Lake Cyclic Steam and Air Injection pilot was considered a failure at the time because it didn't bring up much oil, but it unexpectedly did bring up gas that "consistently contained up to 20% hydrogen."

In 2014 Professor Ian Gates and research engineer Jackie Wang noticed that the Marguerite Lake project proved that under certain conditions In Situ Combustion can generate large quantities of elemental hydrogen generation. They also recognized that if this process can be replicated and managed, it would have huge implications for world energy systems, and especially for Canada’s beleaguered Oil Sands.

They basically inject oxygen-enriched air into the hydrocarbon layers up to two kilometres underground, which starts burning in situ.

Eventually, oxidation temperatures exceed 500°C. This extreme heat causes the nearby hydrocarbons, and any surrounding water molecules, to break apart. Both the hydrocarbons and the H2O become a temporary source of free hydrogen gas. These molecular splitting processes are referred to as thermolysis, gas reforming and water-gas shift. They have been used in commercial industrial processes to generate hydrogen for more than 100 years.

They then pick up the gases and filter out the hydrogen using a version of the filters used in conventional steam reformation. The result: pure "guilt-free" hydrogen, steam for power generation and a bit of helium. They claim "HEE will be completely clean and green, producing pure hydrogen continuously and in massive quantities." The CEO is quoted in Phys.Org:

Grant Strem, CEO of Proton Technologies, which is commercializing the process, 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.

Tyler Hamilton is excited and sees a great future for Canada's oil sands and for the country.

As the sun sets on fossil fuels, let’s be ready for a hydrogen sunrise. Let’s build on what we have, leverage what we know and secure what we need to become the world’s hydrogen hub.

I have always called the hydrogen economy a fantasy, a folly, and a fraud, writing, "Follow the money. Who is selling 95 percent of the hydrogen on the market right now? The oil and chemical companies. They make massive amounts of it for producing fertilizer and powering rockets and no doubt love the idea of selling more to power cars" – and, as we have noted, trains, and now they want to pipe it to houses.

©. Thyssenkrupp piping hydrogen to blast furnace

But we have seen how hydrogen be used to reduce the footprint of steel, and now we see that it can be cooked out of the ground while leaving the carbon behind. Hamilton also reminds us that there are many startups building high-efficiency electrolyzers to use renewable energy to make hydrogen.

I have been dumping on hydrogen since 2005 when I wrote that the hydrogen economy isn't coming soon. Is my thinking out of date? Should I be reconsidering my position?