Prairie research examines hydrogen potential

In a decade or two, farmers might show as much interest in hydrogen prices as they do to diesel prices today.

Electric battery power might have captured most of the limelight in the field of advanced vehicle technology in the past decade, but talk about hydrogen fuel cells has occupied a lot of space in technology publications in recent months.

And while battery-powered car technology is dominated by international firms such as Tesla and Volkswagen, Canadian companies have a high profile in many aspects of the hydrogen fuel cell field.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are each involved in research projects that could advance the cause of hydrogen and help lead the way to a cleaner atmosphere while maintaining a vibrant, though much changed, hydrocarbon industry.

Hydrogen is a very light gas that when run through a fuel cell generates electricity and produces only pure water as a byproduct.

Today though, it is mostly made from natural gas, in a process that produces carbon dioxide.

It can also be made by electrolysis where an electrical current is passed through waters producing hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is generated by solar or wind, the process is free of greenhouse gases.

Alas, the current state of the technology is such that this green hydrogen is expensive.

However, as with all renewable energy production, the cost is falling and many energy experts believe that battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells are complementary technologies that will dominate transportation in coming decades.

Last year, the Alberta government contributed $7.3 million to a $15 million, industry led, three-year project to determine if hydrogen has a role in heavy freight transportation.

The project is designing and building two 64-tonne, B-train tractor trailers that will travel up to 700 kilometres between refuelling. The units will be operated by Bison Transport and Trimac Transportation and by the end of the trial will have travelled 500,000 kilometres in all weather.

Canadian companies dominate the project with Burnaby-based Ballard Power providing the fuel cell, Zen Clean Energy Solutions of Vancouver managing the project and Nordresa, a Quebec-based electric drivetrain maker, among the firms involved.

The tractor bodies will come from Freightliner/Daimler.

This is not the only hydrogen fuel cell truck initiative. Several vehicle manufacturers are involved and Phoenix, Arizona-based Nikola Motor is to hydrogen vehicles what Tesla Inc. was to battery electric cars 10 years ago.

The Alberta government is interested in hydrogen because it can be made from the province’s petroleum reserves. It is already produced there for use in cracking hydrocarbons and in nitrogen fertilizer production.

With some alteration, the standard hydrogen production method, called steam-methane reforming of natural gas, could become a low carbon process through capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it underground.

What would be even better is a process developed by Calgary-based Proton Technologies. Instead of extracting natural gas from a well and transporting it to a processing facility, Proton uses the oilfield itself as the processing vessel.

It has been doing trials at an oilfield at Kerrobert, Sask. This spring the Saskatchewan government announced its support through the Petroleum Innovation Incentive.

Proton’s system works like this.

It injects oxygen-enriched air into the oil reservoir. This causes the hydrocarbons to get very hot, and hydrocarbon and water molecules break apart into constituent parts, including hydrogen.

Among Proton’s key technologies is a patented, encapsulated membrane that is put down into the oilfield where it seeks out the hydrogen and allows only that gas to move up the well to the surface. All the carbon remains underground.

The system could also select to allow other valuable gases such as helium to be recovered and steam and other waste heat could be used to generate electricity or heat buildings.

Proton says its system could be an ideal way to reinvigorate reservoirs that are abandoned, in decline or waterlogged.

The company believes that once its processes are optimized, it could produce hydrogen at much less than half the cost of steam methane reforming.

A huge bonus for Western Canada would be that most of the existing infrastructure and labour force of the oil and gas industry would be maintained.

In addition to producing green transportation fuel, the hydrogen could be directly burned to power zero-carbon electricity-generating plants and nitrogen fertilizer manufacturers.

This technology is early in its development and there is no guarantee it will be commercially viable, but the potential is tantalizing.

New Holland displayed a hydrogen fuel cell tractor at farm shows in 2009 and an updated version in 2011.

Because the fuel cells power electric motors the tractors have much more torque than diesel engines, plus they had an estimated 30 percent lower maintenance cost.

In that longer time frame farmers might also have options to become hydrogen producers.

Who knows?

If the cost of solar and wind continue to decline and the technology of electrolysing hydrogen becomes more efficient and lower cost, then it might become practical to invest in wind or solar, not to hook up to the grid, but to produce hydrogen for farm machinery.

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