Widespread environmental pollution is arguably the greatest challenge that faces the world today. With a multitude of sources ranging from chemical pollution produced during industrial processes, improper waste disposal, increases in agricultural activities, as well as noise and light pollution due to the expansion of cities as populations grow – each of these sources deliver a set of consequences that directly impact the environment and living organisms that inhabit it. The most obvious cause of widespread pollution is the burning of fossil fuels and carbon emissions for global energy requirements and transportation.
Over recent months record breaking temperatures and the conclusive evidence of increased rainfall have indicated, yet again, that climate change is occurring. So, it seems we are becoming well-accustomed to searching for solutions to help slow or stop the impact we are having on the environment, whether that be from global protests and the rise of climate activists such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, to the efforts of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, scientists, researchers, and engineers who are also doing what they can to change the impact humanity has on the planet.
A group of Canadian engineers have now made a recent breakthrough that scientists have hailed as a “silver bullet” in favor of cleaner energy and the climate. The group of engineers have developed a way of extracting hydrogen from oil without releasing greenhouse gases – leaving carbon dioxide and methane in the ground.
Hydrogen is considered to be an efficient transport fuel, and, unlike petrol and diesel, it produces no pollution when burned. Some car manufacturers have already begun to use hydrogen to power vehicles, and it can also be burned to generate electricity.
Until now, implementing the use of hydrogen technology extensively has been considered too expensive due to the high costs involved in separating it from hydrocarbons. Furthermore, the current use of hydrogen in transportation derives from natural gas, which involves a process that produces planet-warming methane.
However, the recent innovation by the Canadian engineers is a process that can extract hydrogen (H2) from existing oil sands (natural bitumen) reservoirs. With huge supplies already found in Canada and Venezuela, this technique can be applied to mainstream oil fields, causing them to produce hydrogen instead of oil.
There are vast oil sand reservoirs in several countries, with huge fields in Alberta in Canada, but also in Venezuela and other countries.
Dr. Ian Gates, of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Calgary, and of Proton Technologies Inc.
Even oil fields that have been abandoned contain sizeable amounts of oil that could be utilized for this new and pioneering approach – researchers discovered that by injecting oxygen into the fields raises the temperature and releases H2, this can then be extracted using specialist filters.
While hydrogen is not present in the reservoirs, the pumping of oxygen means that the reaction required to form hydrogen can take place. Grant Stem, CEO of Proton Technologies.
Grant Stem, CEO of Proton Technologies said, "This technique can draw up huge quantities of hydrogen while leaving the carbon in the ground. When working at production level, we anticipate we will be able to use the existing infrastructure and distribution chains to produce H2 for between 10 and 50 cents per kilo."
This means that there is the potential to provide energy and power on a global scale on the current infrastructure. The research and technology are exciting prospects which have been developed by Ian Gates and Jacky Wang in an agreement between the University of Calgary and Proton Technologies Inc., who now hold the patent and are commercializing the process.
Greeting the breakthrough with cautious optimism, some experts want to see further testing and research carried out.
Making hydrogen from hydrocarbons using oxygen is nothing new—the trick is not releasing the CO2 to the atmosphere.
Jeremy Tomkinson, Company Director and CEO at NNFCC The Bioeconomy Consultants
Tomkinson continued: "It would be really exciting if they had found a way of... ensuring the carbonaceous gases remain locked underground—letting them go to atmosphere would result in no difference to burning the oil above ground at far less energy burden.”
Professor Brian Horsfield, from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam, believes that in order to evaluate how the system works on an industrial scale, considerable field testing is required but declares the project as “highly innovative and exciting.”
Therefore, with rising global energy demands rising in parallel with carbon emissions and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declaring an urgency to reduce greenhouse gases or risk irreversible and catastrophic changes to the climate, perhaps then, this green energy breakthrough of pollution-free hydrogen is indeed the “silver bullet” the planet needs.