Could Hydrogen Extraction Kickstart a New Green Economy?


The hydrogen economy has long been discussed as one way to tackle human-caused global warming, chiefly because when hydrogen is combusted or used in fuel cells, it combines with oxygen to form that most benign of compounds: pure water.

What’s not to like?

Instead of burning fossil fuels that create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet, we use a fuel that creates a harmless, in fact useful, by-product.

Indeed, many sectors are already seeing the advantages. Alstom Transport, the Paris-based conglomerate, for instance, now runs its first hydrogen-powered train in Germany. And countries looking to upgrade their trains from diesel to “clean power” without building expensive electrical infrastructures will be watching the possible benefits.

Hydrogen’s Carbonomics

The trickiest bit about hydrogen, among several, is that it costs too much money and carbon to be produced economically. The “carbonomics” are all wrong.

According to a recent article by Yongping ZhaiOpens a new window , a sustainable development executive at the Asian Development Bank, 95% of hydrogen is produced using the steam methane reforming process, with around seven pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per pound of hydrogen produced. The remainder comes from electrolysis, using electricity to produce hydrogen.

This technology has the advantage of enabling storage of renewable energy – excess electricity produced by wind or solar farms can be used to produce hydrogen, which can be then reconverted via fuel cells into electricity again.

Breakthrough on the Horizon?

However, this week, the London Daily Express reportedOpens a new window on what could be an interesting breakthrough in Canada. A Calgary-based company called Proton Technologies, which says it began with a conversation between researchers at the University of Canada and engineers at a young oil and gas firm, has come up with an economical way of extracting hydrogen from oil sands.

Canada has plenty of oil sands, as do other countries including Venezuela, and the technology could be adapted to other depleted or active oil fields in the United States, among others.

The technique at the heart is called thermolysis. Oxygen is pumped down into the oil reservoir and oxidizes some of the gases and heavier hydrocarbons. This, in turn, generates heat and, when temperatures rise above 1,000 °F, molecules split and hydrogen and other gases are released.

The hydrogen rises to the top of the reservoir and can be filtered and extracted, leaving all the other gases far below the surface of the earth. Some of the extracted hydrogen can be used to run the oxygen production plant.

Attractive Costs

That is a simplification of the process but already the potential solution is attractive for a couple of reasons: first, cost.

The company is talking about producing hydrogen for 5 to 25 cents a pound, compared with $1 a pound today through conventional extraction methods.

Second, carbon. If the hydrogen extracted then powers the extraction process, the carbonomics look good. And there is abundance. The process can be used in depleted oil fields all over the world – there is still plenty of oil down there, considered too uneconomic to extract but useable as a source of hydrogen.

Some worries will arise over extraction performed deep underground but the company appears to have plausible answers to reasonable concerns. How it communicates on this solution will be crucial.

It sounds promising — and truly transformative, with the added benefit of throwing a lifeline to smaller oil and gas companies that could switch rapidly from being fossil-fuel villains to hydrogen heroes.

Not only must Proton Technologies prove its technology and be open about any potential downsides, it will have to satisfy its fiercest critics.

As people the world over wake up to climate change and become weary of the extractive industries, a company trying out a new hydrogen extraction technology in the already sensitive environmental powder keg of the oil sands of Canada will need to tread carefully and communicate well.