Supplying hydrogen to industrial users is now a major business around the world, as natural gas providers and others recognize the growing importance of this low-emission gaseous fuel supply to further reduce their carbon emissions.
“Demand for hydrogen, which has grown more than threefold since 1975, continues to rise (and is) almost entirely supplied from fossil fuels, with six per cent of global natural gas… going to hydrogen production,” according to a 2019 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“Natural gas is currently the primary source of hydrogen production, accounting for around three-quarters of the annual global dedicated hydrogen production of around 70 million tonnes.”
With its enormous potential, hydrogen is something that Canada has in abundance. According to expert studies, Canada has the potential to produce some of the world’s lowest-cost, lowest-emitting hydrogen.
The growing interest in hydrogen today is largely because, when burned, its only by-products are heat and water – this at a time when so many decision makers are setting emissions targets around energy use.
“Canada has many sources of energy that can be used to produce hydrogen – often called H2 – but perhaps the most promising in terms of abundance and affordability is natural gas.”
It can be used in a number of diverse applications. The production of hydrogen from electrolysis makes it a remarkable ‘battery’ for intermittent renewables like wind and solar.
Hydrogen can also be the fuel source for a fuel cell, which produces electricity and heat. As well, hydrogen can be added to existing natural gas streams to ‘up’ the heat content of the fuel burned while also reducing emissions.
Canada has many sources of energy that can be used to produce hydrogen – often called H2 – but perhaps the most promising in terms of abundance and affordability is natural gas.
CGA urges action to take advantage of hydrogen opportunity
While the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) and industry partners have collaborated for several years with government and other stakeholders to develop the conditions necessary to build a successful hydrogen marketplace in Canada – and as Natural Resources Canada continues to develop a national hydrogen strategy – the CGA has stepped up its efforts in light of significant global competition.
In Summer of 2020, the Association called on government at all levels to work with the natural gas sector and other stakeholders to help this country become a global leader in all stages of the hydrogen opportunity, from its production through to its end-use and export.
Additionally, the CGA recommended the creation of a national task group to develop an implementation plan that will focus on near-term opportunities for hydrogen deployment in a select number of high-priority Canadian cities or regions.
Some of the Association’s member companies have begun a variety of projects with the end goal to blend hydrogen into the existing natural gas networks across Canada.
For example, Canadian utility, ATCO Gas, announced last summer advancement of a hydrogen blending project in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., near Edmonton.
ATCO says that once complete, up to five per cent hydrogen by volume will be injected into a section of Fort Saskatchewan’s residential natural gas distribution network, lowering carbon emissions for its customers.
Meanwhile, the Natural Gas Innovation Fund (NGIF) is playing a significant role in funding early-stage clean technologies that have solutions for natural gas applications. NGIF’s portfolio now includes a growing sub-set of promising hydrogen technologies from Canadian and global start-ups that have exciting opportunities for Canada’s natural gas industry. Two of the portfolio companies Solistra and Ekona are featured below.
Solistra – a spin-off company from the University of Toronto Solar Fuels Group – aims to commercialize an innovative nanomaterial able to convert carbon dioxide and methane simultaneously into conventional petrochemicals using solar energy.
“The materials, which are activated by directly illuminating them with natural sunlight, drastically decrease the amount of energy required to carry out these chemical reactions,” explains Alexandra Tavasoli, Solistra CEO.
“Since carbon dioxide and methane gas occur as waste gases from a number of non-fossil sources including landfills, orphan wells, and agricultural or food waste, Solistra’s technology provides a means to make green hydrogen from a variety of waste sources.”
The units consume only 30 per cent of the electricity that water electrolysis units use, allowing for the production of hydrogen at a wide range of scales, in geographical locations where water is scarce.
With the support of NGIF, Natural Resources Canada, and the MaRS Discovery District, Solistra has been able to complete the first stage of its first pilot project, incredibly 1,000 times larger from their original lab-scale prototype. The production of green hydrogen is next on the horizon.
“The hydrogen economy is booming,” explains Tavasoli in discussing her business model. “The bold plans to reduce the carbon intensity of infrastructure fuels like natural gas by injecting hydrogen into distribution grids, or to use it for transportation services – for example long-haul freight and public transit – or mining applications are sure to increase demand for green hydrogen.”
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Ekona Power Inc. is creating a solution to producing industrial-scale hydrogen that is both low-cost and clean by converting natural gas into hydrogen, clean power and pure carbon and/or pure carbon dioxide that can be easily stored or used.
The three-year, $13.8 million project will develop and demonstrate a novel pulse methane pyrolysis (PMP) system for low-cost, clean, industrial hydrogen production.
The project will also demonstrate a direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC), which converts solid by-product carbon from the PMP process to electrical power and enhances the economics of hydrogen production.
The resulting tri-generation pyrolysis (TGP) platform is expected to produce clean hydrogen at costs lower than conventional steam methane reforming (SMR) with up to 90 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
In the final phase, a PMP system will be tested in Alberta to evaluate its performance against customer requirements. The field trial unit is expected to generate 200 kg per day of hydrogen, as well as pure solid carbon from natural gas for applications including industrial hydrogen production and natural gas decarbonization.
“Hydrogen as a key clean energy vector will be required to decarbonize many hard to decarbonize sectors such as natural gas, heavy duty transportation, aviation, and crude production,” explains Chris Reid, Ekona Power CEO. “It looks like the world has recognized this as well and the activity on hydrogen has increased as a result.”
Having worked with the Canadian and provincial (BC) governments on hydrogen strategies, Ekona Power is thrilled with the funding provided by organizations like NGIF and CGA.
“The NGIF funding is critical as it allows us to move through our development process quicker and it brings us in touch with key industrial customers who have a strategic interest in our technology.”
Momentum growing for cleantech solutions
NGIF is an industry-led, industry-funded granting organization created by the CGA that seeks to accelerate cleantech innovation in the production, pipeline transmission and end-users of natural gas – with the aim of improving the sector’s environmental and economic performance.
“I continue to be excited to see momentum growing for cleantech solutions in the natural gas sector,” says John Adams, Managing Director of NGIF. “I believe that cleantech startups have the power to create environmental and economic solutions for Canada’s energy sector that can support our sectors growth and compete on a global scale.
“The production of hydrogen and the innovation around it adds a new and exciting dynamic to our industry. I am excited to be able to support NGIF investors with hydrogen solution technologies that have the potential to lower the carbon content on the downstream pipeline infrastructure across Canada side and create a new market growth opportunity for natural gas producers on the upstream.”
Today, 35 per cent of Canadians’ energy needs are met directly by natural gas, with this energy source delivered to approximately two-thirds of the Canadian population and customer growth expanding rapidly.
Dennis Lanthier is an award-winning writer and corporate communications specialist with almost two decades of experience in oil and gas. He earned an International Association of Business Communicator’s Gold Quill in 2011 for the creation of a magazine distributed to TransCanada Pipeline’s employees and retirees. Dennis is now a freelance writer working with several oil and gas associations in the energy sector.