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UBC producing clean hydrogen in Alberta

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A $7 million project involving UBC, the government of Alberta, and Alberta utility company ATCO could soon see new hydrogen technology created at UBC producing clean energy in Alberta.

Hydrogen may be produced using natural gas and the UBC researchers’ methane thermal cracking process without the use of water, decreasing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. The team’s technology will be put to the test at an ATCO facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, which is the province’s largest distributor of natural gas.

Scientists at UBC’s faculty of applied science believe the project can help reduce the cost of hydrogen production to under $2 per kilogram, a goal set by the United States Department of Energy to promote hydrogen adoption. Project leader Dr. Walter Mérida (he/him) is a mechanical engineering professor.

“UBC is a global leader in the development of integrated hydrogen energy systems. 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,” says Dr. Mérida.

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

Thermal cracking of methane

Dr. Omar Herrera (he/him), project co-lead and senior program manager at MéridaLabs, notes that most hydrogen is still currently produced using steam methane reforming (SMR).

“SMR still emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide and uses large quantities of water and energy,” says Dr. Herrera. “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. In contrast, our methane thermal cracking method can produce zero emissions—its only byproduct is carbon black.”

Dr. Amir Sharafian, prototype development co-lead, says the Alberta project may end up serving new markets for carbon black. “Carbon black is valuable for manufacturing tires, battery electrodes and other industrial processes. Globally this market is projected to reach $23 billion by 2026.”

The project, funded by a $4.98 million grant from Alberta Innovates (which promotes innovation in the province) and industry contributions, can serve as a model for stronger inter-provincial collaborations, says Dr. Mérida, who also leads MéridaLabs.

“After we have successfully piloted this technology, we hope to apply it to other locations, possibly in B.C. as well as other provinces and regions,” said Dr. Mérida. “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.”

Anela Dokso

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