By Dave Cooper, Edmonton Journal
FORT SASKATCHEWAN - An innovative pilot plant near Fort Saskatchewan is producing hydrogen — the key to powering fuel cells and upgrading bitumen — with frontier technology brought from a U.S. government laboratory in Idaho. “I look at this as the holy grail, something everybody has been seeking, a way to produce hydrogen from any carbon. And we are doing it,” said Neil Camarta, chief executive of Western Hydrogen, the private firm he owns with partner Guy Turcotte. The two have invested $15 million to build the pilot plant, which for the next two years will test a variety of feedstocks, including bitumen asphalt, petroleum coke, natural gas and glycerol, the latter being a waste product from canola-based biodiesel production.
The plant, which uses Molten Salt Gasification technology, recently produced its first hydrogen gas from a sample of asphalt that was heated and mixed with water and injected into a reactor vessel.
The market for inexpensive hydrogen is immense, and Western Hydrogen is right in the middle of the Industrial Heartland region which uses large quantities of the gas.
“Our reactor can produce two million cubic feet per day of hydrogen. We would need to make 25 million cubic feet to be a big supplier to an upgrader,” said Camarta, a former senior executive with Shell, Petro-Canada and Suncor.
But he thinks the renewable market would be a perfect fit several individual reactors that could be located around a city and provide a local source of hydrogen. For instance, Western Hydrogen’s single unit can produce enough hydrogen to supply 50 hydrogen fuel-cell powered electric buses. Germany is a leader at using hydrogen fuel cells in cars, and makes it by using electricity from wind turbines to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
“Creating hydrogen using electrolysis costs about $10 per kilogram. We can do it for $3 per kilogram,” said Camarta. Lyman Frost, chief technology officer with Western Hydrogen, was at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory in 2003 when the first work was done on molten salt gasification.
“Neil and Guy Turcotte got involved in 2005 when this technology was still at the laboratory phase. By 2007 we had enough information to start designing a pilot plant. By 2010 we searched for a company to build it, and a Burlington, Ontario firm did the work for us,” he said.
The plant is installed on Aux Sable property near the Shell Scotford complex.
“What is impressive to me is that there are a couple of people up here in Canada who are willing to take the risk associated with making this technology from a U.S. lab into a commercial venture,” said Frost. “These are people who are interested enough in advancing the state of the art in making a cleaner technology for Canada and the world.”
Camarta adds “not too many private individuals are crazy enough to put their own money into something like this.” But young engineers and researchers are intrigued.
“We attract staff like flies because they are so keen to work on this stuff. And it is fun to do, we have a great team here,” Camarta said.
The goal of the pilot plant is to obtain the extensive data needed for potential customers to evaluate and then build the reactors. “The cool thing about this technology is that we can use any carbon as feedstock, and switch between them. Right now the industry uses steam methane reformers to produce hydrogen from natural gas, but that is the only feedstock they can use with that technology,” he said.
While the first tests are with bitumen asphalt — the hard residue from bitumen — it will also work with petroleum coke, a pure carbon material that is now buried in mine sites near Fort McMurray and has no economic value. The reactor can also use algae. “Western Hydrogen doesn’t expect to build all the new reactors; we hope this technology can be used by the world,” said Camarta.
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