In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
Special issue on uses for hydrogen
If you’ve had your ear to the ground on all things energy, you probably already know that hydrogen is poised to be the next big thing in the energy transition. However, with much of the conversation focused on production and transportation, you may be left wondering “how is all this hydrogen going to be USED?” In this special issue of the EIB we take a look at the innovative ways that different industries propose to make use of the hydrogen molecule.
This month’s roundup of energy innovation news looks at how hydrogen is used:
1. To fuel trucks, trains, and automobiles (and rockets and container ships)
2. To power heavy industry
3. To decarbonize consumer energy use
To fuel trucks, trains, and automobiles (and rockets and container ships)
- Cars: Although electric vehicles have taken off in North America and Europe as an alternative to fossil fuel for passenger vehicles, some parts of the world—especially Asia—are betting on hydrogen. China’s capital Beijing (population 21.5 million) aims to have over 10,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road and 74 hydrogen filling stations by 2025. Nationally, a target has been set of one million fuel cell vehicles sold by 2035. The Chinese government has been investing significant amounts of money in both fuel cell vehicle development and infrastructure to make this happen. Japan is also heavily subsidizing hydrogen for passenger vehicles and now has the most filling stations of any country in the world (135) and government plans for reaching 200,000 vehicles by 2025. Will EV and hydrogen cars follow the path of VHS vs. Betamax with a single eventual winner, or will they be the Coke and Pepsi of the future?
- Trains: Canadian Pacific (CP) railway is in the process of building a hydrogen-powered freight train—specifically, a locomotive retrofitted with hydrogen fuel cells (to be provided by B.C.’s Ballard Power Systems) and new battery technology. The locomotive is set to debut in 2021, but CP has not yet announced what route the train will run on. Currently, almost all of North America’s trains run on diesel fuel, and there are few options for emissions abatement. While trains are more efficient than trucks, Canada’s railway industry consumes over two billion litres of diesel fuel each year. CP’s pilot is a great start, and with over 3,700 diesel locomotives in Canada, there’s plenty of room to grow.
- Ocean freighters: In a world where many companies are working towards the clean and efficient production of hydrogen, often from natural gas, it seems odd that anyone would be investigating how to turn it back into methane. However, that is just what Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd. is doing. The Japanese shipping company’s proposal would combine green hydrogen with captured CO2 to produce methane through a century-old process call methanation. The resulting fuel would be used to power the company’s fleet of ocean freighters and would be carbon-neutral due to the use of captured CO2 that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere. The use of methane is advantageous over pure hydrogen or ammonia, as it does not require extensive upgrades to the ship’s existing natural gas burners.
- Trucks: The massive power requirements of heavy-duty vehicles have made electrification challenging—but hydrogen may be the key to decarbonization. It’s not without challenges, so some recent developments in Western Canada are welcome news. On June 3, the federal government announced a $2.3 million investment in the Alberta Zero-Emission Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) project that will go towards building a hydrogen fuelling station in Edmonton. This $9.2 million industry-led project includes the design and manufacture of two Canadian-made, heavy-duty, hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid trucks—the first vehicles of their size and capacity built and tested in the world. And on June 28, an announcement was made that 65 heavy-duty trucks owned by Hydra Energy and operating in Northeastern B.C. will be retrofitted to allow for up to 40% hydrogen fuel, reducing emissions by 67 tonnes of CO2 per truck per year. The economics of the change are supported by B.C.’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), which will allow Hydra to generate $1.9 million in credits by building a hydrogen fueling station for the trucks.
- Rockets: On July 20, world’s richest man Jeff Bezos returned from the first commercial space flight from company Blue Origin—propelled by hydrogen. (And also propelled by Amazon’s customers and employees, whom Bezos thanked for paying for his jaunt into space.) Since the 1960s, liquid hydrogen has been used as rocket fuel to launch crews and cargo into space. And for good reason—liquid hydrogen oxidized with liquid oxygen has proven to be the highest efficiency rocket propellant found so far. And a lot of hydrogen is needed, as each flight of the space shuttle, for example, burned approximately 500,000 gallons of cold liquid hydrogen, while another 239,000 gallons evaporated during storage or were lost during transfer operations. Currently, there are 114 attempted orbital launches in the world each year, which pales in comparison to airplane or car trips—but that number is rising and there are plenty more billionaires looking to take a ride.
To power heavy industry
- Cement production has extremely high heat requirements, making it one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize. Making clinker for example – one of the key ingredients in Portland cement – requires kiln temperatures of over 1300° These temperatures are typically reached through the combustion of coal, natural gas, or other GHG emitting fuels. However, cement producer Hanson UK and researchers at Swansea University announced a collaboration earlier this year to pilot the use of green hydrogen at Hanson’s Port Talbot plant. The green hydrogen will be used to enrich a natural gas mixture that is burned in the company’s blast furnaces. Through the use of hydrogen and a lower-emission alternative to Portland cement called ground granulated blast-furnace slag, or GGBS, the team believes they can lower their emissions by 90% compared to traditional cement.
- Steel production is responsible for 7-8% of global carbon emissions every year; however, by switching from coal to hydrogen-based production, the manufacturing process can become emissions-free. H2 Green Steel, a Swedish company established in 2020, plans to build a steel production facility powered by green hydrogen. By using hydrogen to fuel the plant’s arc furnaces, and also as a replacement for coke, the company can remove all fossil fuels from its operations. This will be the first large-scale fossil-free steel plant producing hot rolled, cold rolled and galvanized steel coils which will then be supplied to European manufactures. Steel production will begin in 2024 and the company aims to have the capacity to produce five million tons of zero-emissions steel per year by 2030.
- Oil refining is a process that requires hydrogen to remove sulphur from the fuel. And now Suncor Energy will be both a consumer and a provider of that hydrogen. In May, Suncor Energy and ATCO announced plans to develop a blue hydrogen facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta that will produce 300,000 tonnes of hydrogen per year and reduce Alberta’s CO2 emissions by over two million tonnes per year. Roughly 65% of the hydrogen will be used in the refining process at Suncor’s Edmonton refinery, and about 20% will be available for adding to the natural gas grid for decarbonizing power and heating.
- Fertilizer manufacturers have been using hydrogen as an input to nitrogen fertilizers since the early 1900s when the Haber-Bosch Process unlocked the secret to ammonia production–combining hydrogen with nitrogen under high temperatures and pressures. Today, most hydrogen produced for use in fertilizers is sourced from natural gas without carbon capture technology. However, CF Industries–the owner of Canada’s largest fertilizer plant (located in southern Alberta)–has announced plans to rapidly decarbonize its operations and become a world leader in green and blue ammonia production, or ammonia produced with green or blue hydrogen. In addition to decarbonizing its fertilizer operations, CF described how the production of green ammonia could open up an alternative business stream for the company—ammonia as a clean fuel source. While ammonia fuels are not commercially available yet, CF has begun conversations with Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp as a potential buyer of the carbon-free fuel.
To decarbonize consumer energy use
- Heating homes in Alberta and BC: As a combustible gas, hydrogen is well suited for blending with other fuels, such as natural gas, to reduce end-user emissions. As such, hydrogen is being widely investigated for its potential in home heating, including two pilot projects in Western Canada. In Alberta, ATCO announced the construction of the country’s largest hydrogen-blending project near Fort Saskatchewan. The project is set to have 5,000 customers using the blended gas, which will include up to 5% hydrogen, after final construction wraps up in summer 2021. ATCO hopes the $5.7 million project will provide a “roadmap” for future greenhouse gas emissions reductions in Alberta. Fortis BC has also announced a $500,000 investment to fund UBC researchers investigating how best to blend hydrogen into the company’s natural gas network. The research team will focus on what concentrations of hydrogen can be blended into the existing infrastructure while avoiding expensive overhauls.
- Offsetting renewables: Hydrogen can be used as a method of energy storage, offering an alternative to batteries and providing a solution to the problem of intermittency for renewable energy. Wind and solar can be used to generate green hydrogen when the sun is shining and wind is blowing, and the emissions-free hydrogen can be burned for electricity when the sun is dark and the wind is still. Although the use of natural gas with carbon capture is likely to remain a more economic option for power production in western Canada—due to the abundance of cheap natural gas and CCS opportunities—green hydrogen could be a valuable storage solution in regions with ample wind and solar resources. Siemens Energy has already started to move on this opportunity and is working with several utilities in the US to develop hydrogen-fueled power plants.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Marla Orenstein and Brendan Cooke. This month’s edition features contributions by Marla Orenstein, Brendan Cooke, Kevin Franceschini and Mehera Salah. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .