Hydrogen, natural gas touted as allies, not rivals

Advantages of cultivating hydrogen-LNG synergies a key focus of energy conference

HTEC CEO Colin Armstrong: “I think we’re all firm believers that natural gas and hydrogen and LNG need to work together” | Chung Chow

At a session on hydrogen at last week’s Canada Gas and LNG Conference, one panellist raised a question that was probably on the minds of a few attendees.

“What are we doing here?” asked Gary Schubak, vice-president of business development for Ekona Power.

Ekona is the Burnaby company that’s commercializing a methane pyrolysis process for producing clean hydrogen from natural gas without requiring carbon capture and storage.

The process produces hydrogen and solid carbon, which is easier to dispose of or use than gaseous CO2, since it requires no geological sequestration.

As the discussion progressed, it was stressed that hydrogen should seen as a future fuel that doesn’t threaten the legacy natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry so much as complements it in a way that will allow fossil fuel industries to diversify and transition from producing one low-carbon fuel (natural gas) to an even-lower-carbon fuel (hydrogen).

“I think we’re all firm believers that natural gas and hydrogen and LNG need to work together,” said Colin Armstrong, CEO of HTEC, which specializes in hydrogen production, distribution and fueling infrastructure.

Hydrogen is an important decarbonization fuel because of its flexibility. Without producing CO2 emissions, it can power hydrogen fuel cells, either for vehicles or stationary power, and can also be burned in industrial processes, like steelmaking, and in transportation.

It can also be blended with pipeline natural gas to reduce its emissions intensity. And when it is produced with wind or solar power through electrolysis (green hydrogen), it can solve the energy storage problem that intermittent wind and solar power have, since the hydrogen produced can be stored – and transported – to power fuel cells to produce electricity when it’s needed.

Schubak said there are certain sectors – aviation, shipping and some heavy industries – that will never be able to fully electrify.

“We need chemical fuels in this society,” he said. “Natural gas has become really the leading chemical fuel in our society, and the real challenge is decarbonizing its delivery for heat, power and chemical feedstocks. Hydrogen is really the vector to do that, so decarbonizing natural gas and hydrogen delivery are the same story.

“I think there’s tremendous synergy between natural gas and hydrogen as energy carriers,” Schubak said. “I think leveraging existing infrastructure is the key to going fast. What we want to do in Ekona is build off of our existing natural gas infrastructure. And we have a wonderful infrastructure that’s taken decades to build.”

Matthew Klippenstein, moderator and regional manager of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, suggested legacy infrastructure – pipelines, storage, fuelling, LNG carriers – could eventually be used for hydrogen, which can also be a zero-carbon drop-in fuel for internal combustion engine vehicles without having to replace the engines.

Natural gas will likely be the main feedstock for producing hydrogen in Western Canada. Not surprisingly, oil and gas companies accounted for the lion’s share of the $79 million in Series A funding that Ekona raised earlier this year.

“They’ve invested in our company because they see the technology as something that protects their business interests and, more than that, allows them to be a player in a decarbonization story,” Schuback said.

“I believe natural gas is the most abundant and low-cost feedstock for hydrogen that we have in North America, and that we should exercise every bit of technology to exploit that resource.”

Most hydrogen production in Alberta is expected to be “blue” – hydrogen made from natural gas through steam methane reforming, with the carbon captured and sequestered.

“Alberta’s enormous natural gas reserves and potential for CCUS (carbon capture utilization and storage) means we are positioned to be one of the lowest cost, clean hydrogen producing regions in the world,” said Dale Nally, Alberta’s associate minister of natural gas. “Whenever I say that, people always say ‘Great, who has the cheapest?’ The answer to that is Russia.”

Alberta not only has abundant natural gas, it also has both the geological sequestration capacity and dedicated CO2 pipeline infrastructure needed for large scale CCUS.

Schuback said natural gas with CCUS is “a great way” to make hydrogen. But not every jurisdiction has Alberta’s CCUS advantages, which is where Ekona’s solution comes in. It can be installed anywhere that has a natural gas supply.

An LNG receiving and regasification terminal in Japan or South Korea, for example, could install a methane pyrolysis processor to then use the natural gas to make hydrogen and solid carbon.

“We don’t need to scrap or move away from our existing LNG infrastructure,” Schubak said.

Nor do trucking fleet owners looking to decarbonize heavy-duty diesel trucks need to scrap entire fleets and replace them with hydrogen fuel cell trucks, because hydrogen can also be co-combusted with diesel and other fuels.

Hydra Energy has developed a business model in which it covers the cost of converting diesel truck engines to burn diesel and hydrogen in exchange for hydrogen fuel supply contracts.

This co-combustion technology allows fleet owners to displace 40 per cent of the diesel burned in heavy-duty trucks, with only minor modifications to engines.

“Next year we will offer a solution that is 50-50,” said Laura Guzman, Hydra Energy’s director of government affairs.

She added that LNG carriers could be converted to run on hydrogen, or even transport it, possibly in the form of ammonia, which is an ideal carrier for hydrogen, bbecause it can be easily shipped and then “decomposed” into hydrogen and nitrogen.

The B.C. government is betting big on the hydrogen economy as a way to reduce domestic emissions and capitalize on what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar export market. Last year it developed a hydrogen strategy aimed at building a hydrogen supply chain.

“Hydrogen alone has the potential to reduce the province’s emissions by over 30 per cent of the 2050 CleanBC target,” Bruce Ralston, minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, said at an earlier session at last week’s conference.

“There are approximately 40 hydrogen projects currently proposed or under construction in British Columbia, and the number is growing,” Ralston said. “These projects represent more than $5 billion in proposed investment in British Columbia.”