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The Potential of Renewable Hydrogen (Ask NRCan)

Research scientist Peter Gogolek explains to us what is renewable hydrogen, how it is used by the energy sector, as well as how it can help Canada lower its carbon footprint.

Transcript

Joel Houle (Host)

What exactly is renewable hydrogen? Is it different than regular hydrogen? Is it clean? Is it safe? We'll answer those questions and more on today's episode of Ask NRCan — our podcast series where we sit down with our experts to talk about some of the work that we do here at Natural Resources Canada. I'm your host Joel Houle. And for those of you who are new to the show, we call this series Ask NRCan, because we want to hear from you. The purpose of the show is to share with you not only the type of science that we do but also why we do it.

So at the end of the episode if you have any questions on renewable hydrogen, head to Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag Ask NRCan. Our experts will do their best to answer all relevant questions.

Sounds good. Okay, let's do it.

My guest today is research scientist Peter Gogolek, who you might remember from our episode on bioplastics last year. Peter welcome back!

Peter Gogolek

I'm happy to be here.

Joel

Perfect. Can you start by explaining to us what hydrogen is and why specifically it's so important to the energy sector?

Peter

Okay. Well hydrogen is the lightest molecule that we have on Earth, and it's actually one of the most abundant in the universe. It is odourless. It's invisible really, and it's nontoxic as far as we can tell because it doesn't last long enough. It's extremely reactive. When hydrogen burns, the flame is invisible. So actually, in some cases, it's a safety hazard that way. It's used in a lot of industrial processes. It's an important component for producing fertilizer, which the worldwide agricultural industry requires. It's used in metal production, food production, and in Canada, one of the places it's used a lot is in the upgrading of our oil sands resources.

Joel

So, when I hear hydrogen, there seems to be some negative stigma I guess around hydrogen. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

Peter

Well, yes, because of the extreme flammability of hydrogen a lot of people remember the Hindenburg explosion. It was a Zeppelin. Because hydrogen is very light it was used to fill the balloons that carried these aircraft across the ocean and it caught fire and it was captured on early film. So it's very well known for that. Hydrogen is also associated with nuclear weapons. The hydrogen bomb, you know, so the brand has got a little bit of a tarnish attached to that. But hydrogen is a very important component of our industrial processes. It's used safely every day in very, very large volumes. And it is an important energy carrier that could be the key to our renewable, green, carbon-free energy future.

Joel

You touched on something interesting here about our carbon energy future. I was always under the impression that the use of hydrogen in technology was clean, but apparently, that's not always the case. Can you explain to us why that is?

Peter

Sure. Exactly the same way as electricity is perceived as being clean, but if your electricity is generated using coal, there's an awful lot of carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions associated with that electricity. In the same way hydrogen is most commonly produced from what’s called steam reforming. So, it's a reaction of steam with natural gas, which is predominantly methane to produce hydrogen and also carbon dioxide in very large amounts. It's actually a very intensive GHG emitter. And in that sense, if your hydrogen is produced from a fossil fuel source, it's not clean.

Joel

So can renewable hydrogen help us lower our carbon footprints?

Peter

Well absolutely, and there are other ways of producing hydrogen. At the moment, because of various economic forces, the steam reforming of natural gas is the most common way. There are very many other ways of producing hydrogen using renewable energy. Electrolysis of water using renewable electricity is a great way of doing it. It actually has its own little tag phrase in English called Power to Gas where the excesses of hydro or wind or solar are used for the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen.  Personally I’m working on projects that are looking at the gasification of various bio-source materials, biosolids, which are the solids left over from treating wastewater. Gasified and hydrogen refined from that — gasification of wood and wood wastes for production of hydrogen. So there are ways that are coming on stream now that are increasingly competitive with fossil sources for the production of hydrogen.

Joel

If we can go back to the energy sector. Can you expand, or go into greater detail, as to how hydrogen is used specifically in the oil and gas sector?

Peter

Sure, that's one of the two places where hydrogen is manufactured and used. One of them, perhaps the largest, is the fertilizer industry, where hydrogen is produced to make ammonia to make fertilizers, or nitrogen-based fertilizer. The other place is for the upgrading of heavy oils where you want to introduce hydrogen to get the carbon to hydrogen ratio to the level that's needed for the consumer products — for gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene and so forth. So you need to produce hydrogen to react with those, the heavier crude oils, for example — the oil sands that we have in Alberta in great abundance — to produce the products that we need in our everyday lives.

Joel

So, what does adding hydrogen to the heavy oil do?

Peter

What you have in heavy oil, and one of the reasons it’s called heavy oil, is that it is heavy. It's got too much carbon compared to the hydrogen. We want to react to that material with the hydrogen that we've produced renewably, hopefully, to get the carbon to hydrogen ratio lower so that we have what is known as a lighter product. So that it's able to be used in your automobile. Your diesel truck. Your home heating fuel. These are the places that we use the hydrocarbons predominantly.

Joel

So, what do you think is the future of hydrogen — basically from an energy sector standpoint in the future? Are we looking at an increase in trying to obtain more hydrogen or are we moving away from fossil fuels so there's likely less hydrogen to be used?

Peter

Well, hydrogen I think has a great future. I think it will be something that we will be seeing a lot more of. One of the ways of leveling out, as people might be aware, is that when you are producing renewable electricity, wind or solar, that has its peaks — when it's available and the times when it's not available. Hydrogen, through its gas to power potential, is very much a way of storing electricity so it can be used later. The renewable hydrogen that can be produced will be useful in many ways it can be used as a transportation fuel. People have heard about the fuel cell vehicles, that's one place where it can be used. It can be used again in any of these industries that use hydrogen a lot right now, like fertilizers and refineries, and it could even be used in the natural gas system. A small amount of hydrogen will not change the equipment that's required. But that's a place where you can put your gas.

Joel

That's super interesting! Thank you so much Peter for your time today.

Peter

You're very welcome. I enjoyed it.

Joel

So this is the end of the episode, but like always, it doesn't mean it's the end of our conversation. If you have any follow-up questions for our experts, get on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag AskNRCan. Also, if you're interested in learning more about the scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada, check out our online magazine called Simply Science. We have a ton of great content for you including articles, videos and previous episodes of this podcast. If you check out the podcast page for this episode, we'll have links available to any relevant material, so you can learn more about what we talked about today. The best way to find Simply Science is either to Google it or click on the banner from our website at nrcan.gc.ca. And, if you like this episode, and you're listening to us on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher or Soundcloud, please leave a review and subscribe so you can check out any previous or future episodes. That's it for us today. Thank you for listening. We look forward to hearing from you, and we'll see you next time.

 

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