UBC team spearheads Alberta hydrogen energy project

Pilot project aims to generate clean energy while cutting emissions

The team conducting the project is being led by mechanical engineering Prof. Walter Mérida | Submitted

Hydrogen technology developed at UBC could soon be helping generate clean energy in Alberta as a result of a $7 million joint project between UBC, the government of Alberta and Alberta utility company ATCO.

The technology is called thermal methane cracking, projected to produce up to 200 kilograms of hydrogen a day using natural gas, without using water and while reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. 

At present, hydrogen can cost up to $15 per kilogram but the project aims to eventually drop this to under $2 per kilogram—in line with goals set by the US Department of Energy to support hydrogen adoption, UBC said.

The team, led by mechanical engineering Prof. Walter Mérida, hopes the Alberta pilot test could lead to the process being used in B.C. and across Canada.

“Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel with many uses, and Canada is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in the development of hydrogen technologies and business models to power a low-carbon economy,” Mérida said.

The team will test the system at a facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, run by ATCO, Alberta’s largest natural gas distributor.

“UBC is a global leader in the development of integrated hydrogen energy systems,”  Mérida said. “It's very exciting to apply this innovation beyond our provincial borders, effectively extending UBC’s ‘campus as a living lab’ approach, in Western Canada and potentially beyond.

“Technology and innovation is key to global economic recovery and global interest and investment in hydrogen is growing,” Alberta Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer said. “This project will create jobs and help advance Alberta’s role as a responsible producer and supplier of clean hydrogen.”

Dr. Omar Herrera, project co-lead and MéridaLabs senior program manager, said most hydrogen is still currently produced using steam methane reforming (SMR) that emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide and uses large quantities of water and energy.

“Water electrolysis is another method, but it is costly and can emit even more greenhouse gases than SMR if the electricity used is from non-renewable sources,” Herrera said. “In contrast, our thermal methane cracking method can produce zero emissions—its only by-product is carbon black.”

Carbon black is a by-product of hydrocarbon or fossil fuel combustion.

And that’s where the emission reduction comes in. The by-product is diverted into usable products, Herrera said.

“Carbon black is valuable for manufacturing tires, battery electrodes, diamonds and other industry processes. Globally this market is projected to reach $23 billion by 2026,” prototype development co-lead Dr. Amir Sharafian said.

“We’re very, very excited about what we’re deploying,” Herrera said. “It’s going to take us down new pathways.”

The project was funded by a $4.98 million grant from Alberta Innovate as well as industry contributions.

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