Researchers at the University of Alberta and University of Toronto have found a way to produce the greenest and cheapest hydrogen, a finding that would help retool Alberta’s energy sector and push the province closer to a net-zero future.
Erin Bobicki, a mineral processing researcher in the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering who specializes in processes for extracting valuable minerals and metals from ores, has spun a technology that uses microwaves to create hydrogen — a valuable industrial feedstock and critical piece of the province’s sustainable energy future — into a startup called Aurora Hydrogen.
Last fall Bobicki was approached by Murray Thomson, a University of Toronto professor and expert in the process of using methane to generate hydrogen, who was wondering whether microwaves could be used to make the process more energy efficient.
“Microwaves are a very efficient way to transmit energy to materials,” said Bobicki. “There’s a lot of interest in hydrogen, and a lot of the processes for generating hydrogen are extremely energy intensive.”
Currently, hydrogen is being used in the province mainly for upgrading oilsands bitumen, a heavy viscous material that requires hydrogen to produce products like gasoline or diesel fuel. Oilsands companies use upwards of 10,000 kilograms per hour to upgrade their carbon-heavy bitumen.
Aurora’s bench-scale reactor can make two kilograms of hydrogen per day, but could easily scale that up to 200 kilograms per day — enough for a fuelling station in a remote community — using a larger, commonly available microwave generator.
“Most other technologies can either produce hydrogen at a small scale or produce hydrogen at a very big scale; for us there’s no fundamental limit on the scale,” she said.
What Aurora’s technology does, according to Bobicki, is not unlike what a microwave in a home does. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is heated indirectly using microwaves, creating hydrogen and solid carbon. Because the carbon does not become a greenhouse gas, the resulting emissions are lower than even the greenest current hydrogen-producing processes.