It is a dream that fell short of its early optimism and hype: use abundant hydrogen to supply the planet’s energy needs to eliminate the global dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) implicated in climate change.
But the trajectory towards the widespread use of hydrogen stumbled due to numerous marketing and commercialization challenges. Still, continued innovation in hydrogen production holds enormous promise, not only for the existing global hydrogen market, but also for fuel cells that could power vehicles or provide distributed electricity generation.
Carving a niche in this clean energy paradigm is New Brunswick’s Atlantic Hydrogen Inc. The company’s key innovation is the development of an efficient, non-polluting method of extracting hydrogen from methane, the primary component of natural gas. Remarkably, the technology captures carbon as a solid, which prevents emissions and provides an additional saleable product. It is this innovation that the company hopes will make the process economically viable. “We think this is going to be a home run, although we aren’t quite there yet,” CEO David Wagner says from his office in Fredericton, where Atlantic Hydrogen has a working pilot plant that is currently being used for testing and developing its low-cost, low-carbon-footprint technology.
Development of the company’s proprietary technology, called CarbonSaver, has taken 10 years of research and $35 million from a variety of private and government sources, including the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the Atlantic Innovation Fund. The odyssey comes to fruition this fall with the grand opening of the Bayside CarbonSaver Field Demonstration Plant, which will employ up to eight operators who will be supported by Atlantic Hydrogen’s 20 chemical and mechanical engineers, chemists and technicians. It will be located on the grounds of Bayside Power near Saint John. Currently 95 percent completed, the CarbonSaver Field Demonstration Plant lies adjacent to the Irving Oil Refinery (Canada’s largest), which produces more than 300,000 barrels of refined products every day.
The grand opening of Atlantic Hydrogen’s CarbonSaver Field Demonstration Plant is set for later this year in New Brunswick. The company has developed an efficient, non-polluting method of extracting hydrogen from the methane in natural gas. Photo credit: Atlantic Hydrogen Inc.
Irving Oil already captures about 100,000 kilograms of hydrogen a day from natural gas, separating it using tried-and-true steam methane reforming (SMR). Relatively inexpensive to operate, the process heats natural gas to temperatures of up to 1,100 C in the presence of steam and a metal-based catalyst; the steam and methane react to yield hydrogen and others gases — mainly CO2 — which must be separated. This leads to one of the main drawbacks of SMR, namely that it is, Wagner says, “very dirty.” For every kilogram of hydrogen created, 11 kilograms of CO2 are produced, negating any illusion that SMR is part of a clean fuel strategy. The CarbonSaver process is unique in that it also produces hydrogen from natural gas, but in a way that allows emissions to be captured and turned into sold carbon particles. For this reason, it makes good sense to put the first demonstration plant next to the refinery, which can immediately use the extra hydrogen. “Not only will hydrogen from CarbonSaver enhance Irving Oil’s current production, it will reduce the amount of CO2 produced for each kilogram of hydrogen,” says Wagner.
“This is a good test ground for us.” (Other industry techniques for producing hydrogen in current use include electrolysis, which doesn’t emit CO2 itself but requires about six times the amount of energy required by SMR, making the carbon footprint high, Wagner adds.)
Atlantic Hydrogen’s field demonstration plant brings the world one step closer to the reality of a hydrogen-based economy by tackling several key challenges. In addition to being a clean source of hydrogen, CarbonSaver is designed to be economical. This is achieved by capturing and selling the carbon that is produced in the process. Markets for the carbon include foundries that use it to raise the carbon level of steel castings for auto parts. “After thorough testing, foundries have determined that our carbon works well,” says Wagner. “And, since our natural gas feedstock is free of sulphur, so is the carbon. This is a huge advantage over oil-based carbon and makes it desirable for industry.” Other manufacturing markets include tires, which are 30 percent carbon black, as well as some inks and dyes.
At this point, CarbonSaver technology isn’t creating hydrogen uncontaminated enough to power fuel cells for electric cars, attaining only 97 percent purity to date, when it needs five decimal points of purity. This would make it compatible with fuel cells’ notoriously fickle membranes, which don’t tolerate contaminants. Any traces of carbon monoxide, for example, will bind irreversibly to the pricey platinum. Carbon monoxide even destroys the platinum catalyst that makes the reaction work, destroying the entire cell. The company is close to creating hydrogen that is acceptable to fuel cells, “but we have some polishing to do,” Wagner says.
Today, Atlantic Hydrogen’s innovation is based on the use of microwaves to produce low-emission hydrogen. Rather than heating the methane using combustion, the company uses a 100-kilowatt microwave (your microwave at home is one kilowatt) that focuses the energy in the CarbonSaver reactors. “It’s where the magic happens,” says Wagner. “It’s a very, very high temperature zone where the reaction takes nanoseconds.” At elevated temperatures of 700-900 C the carbon and hydrogen atoms that make up methane become ionized and break apart. Upon cooling, the hydrogen ions combine to form pure hydrogen gas, while the carbon ions combine into tiny particles of carbon that remain entrained in the flowing gas. Once they are separated, all that remains is hydrogen. The end result is highly concentrated hydrogen. “This is our intellectual property that we have developed, tested, modified and perfected,” says Wagner. “And since this is the technology of the future, we expect the need for low carbon emissions will play a larger role in future hydrogen development.”
Atlantic Hydrogen’s pilot facility in Fredericton is a working integrated plant that takes compressed natural gas to a holding tank that feeds the reactor located in the small grey building. The tall structure is the bag house where the carbon is removed from the gas. Photo credit: Atlantic Hydrogen Inc.
The magic, so to speak, doesn’t stop there. Capturing the carbon particles requires its own complex process. After the plasma pyrolysis stage, the carbon-entrained gas moves through a filter called a bag house, says Wagner. The filter grabs the carbon particles and removes them from the gas, leaving carbon, or soot, in particle form. “It’s not unlike a vacuum cleaner that filters the dirt out of the air it draws in, only we keep the high-value carbon. A large part of Atlantic Hydrogen’s Bayside facility will be devoted to filtering, densifying, drying and packaging the carbon in a form that a foundry would use,” Wagner says.
It has been a bumpy road with several detours on the journey to the demonstration plant, says Wagner, who came on board as CEO in 2006. The company was founded in 2002 by chemist David Fletcher and entrepreneur William Stanley, who had sold his cable television business Fundy Cable to Shaw Communications in 1999. Stanley, who saw clean energy innovation as both an environmental and business opportunity, collaborated with Fletcher to create a plasma process to dissociate carbon and hydrogen molecules from methane — the objective being production of hydrogen for fuel cells with a low-carbon footprint.
Then as now, the pair struggled to achieve the ultra-pure hydrogen required for fuel cells. It didn’t help that, at the time, fuel cell technology was struggling to overcome technical issues. “We were trying to prepare for an industry that wasn’t ready for us,” says Wagner. For a while it seemed the company might find success with hydrogen-enriched natural gas (HENG), which was created by partial dissociation of the methane. By enriching the hydrogen content of natural gas, a product was created that could be used in any engine that burns natural gas, thus reducing CO2 emissions and improving engine efficiency.
Unfortunately, this breakthrough, which came in 2008, coincided with a worldwide recession. Industry wallets in Canada snapped shut, especially since there were no government incentives or legislation requiring reductions in GHG emissions. Nonetheless, Atlantic Hydrogen learned several valuable lessons. They realized that an increase in the level of hydrogen dissociation would boost economic viability, leading to the company’s change to the technological architecture it uses today. Helping matters is the improvement in fuel cell technology over the past decade; Atlantic Hydrogen recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ballard Power Systems, based in Burnaby, BC. “Companies like Ballard are looking for companies like us to provide high concentrations of hydrogen whenever they need it,” Wagner says. “In essence, we’ve come full circle to the production of hydrogen for fuel cells with a low-carbon footprint.”
But a lack of government commitment to reducing greenhouse gases continues to put Atlantic Hydrogen at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to conventional fuel producers. Since governments in Canada balk at addressing the true environmental costs of fossil fuel use by refusing to impose carbon taxes — apart from BC and Alberta, with its paltry $15 per tonne fee for the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund — the deck will remain stacked against a hydrogen economy until public pressure and political will impose restrictions upon fossil fuel use. “New hydrogen technology has to compete with gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels in terms of its energy delivered,” Wagner says.
The odyssey that began 10 years ago “has not been for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” says Wagner. “This innovation is about developing a process that truly is revolutionary in how it could be used. The CarbonSaver is a game changer in its ability to produce low-CO2 hydrogen when compared to competing hydrogen production methods that have huge CO2 footprints.”
As he looks to the future, Wagner sees his company as part of a global carbon-free hydrogen economy supplying the manufacturing sector as well as embracing power fuel cells that generate electricity and move electric vehicles. And that’s a good thing, not only for Atlantic Hydrogen and New Brunswick, but the world.