Clean Hydrogen from Dirty Sources

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.

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