Researchers develop large-scale, economical method to extract hydrogen from oil sands and oil fields
Canadian researchers have developed a large-scale economical method to extract hydrogen from oil sands (natural bitumen) and oil fields. This can be used to power hydrogen-powered vehicles, which are already marketed in some countries, as well as to generate electricity.
The process can extract hydrogen from existing oil sands reservoirs, with huge existing supplies found in Canada and Venezuela. The process can also be applied to mainstream oil fields, causing them to produce hydrogen instead of oil. Proton Technologies is commercializing the process.
The researchers are presenting this work at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Barcelona this week. Goldschmidt is an annual, international conference on geochemistry and related subjects, organized by the European Association of Geochemistry and the Geochemical Society.
Oil fields, even abandoned oil fields, still contain significant amounts of oil. The researchers propose injecting oxygen deep into the reservoirs. Gases, coke and heavier hydrocarbons are oxidized in place (in-situ combustion). Targeted portions of the reservoir become very warm. Where necessary, the temperatures are heightened further through radio frequency emissions.
Eventually, oxidation temperatures exceed 500°C. This heat causes the nearby hydrocarbons—and any surrounding water molecules—to break apart (thermolysis).Thermolysis, gas reforming and water-gas shift have been used in commercial industrial processes to generate hydrogen for more than 100 years. In this new approach, these processes are controlled through the timing and pattern of oxygen injection and external heating.
Separate wells extract the elemental hydrogen, using Proton’s patented Hygenerator. The Hygenerator is a dynamic down-hole device that uses feedback from inside the wells to locate hydrogen. A selective membrane inside the Hygenerator filters the gases, and a pump moves pure hydrogen gas up to the wellhead.
The Hygenerator is an adaptation of hydrogen-selective filters used in steam-methane reformers (SMRs). More than 95% of the world’s hydrogen comes from splitting natural gas, above ground, in SMRs. For the new system to work, the membrane must be encased in a robust cartridge system that can be placed into a bendy well, and function for long periods despite high pressures and temperature.
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 it potentially costs a fraction of gasoline for equivalent output.—Grant Strem, CEO of Proton Technologies
This compares with current H2 production costs of around $2/kilo. Around 5% of the H2 produced then powers the oxygen production plant, so the system more than pays for itself.
What comes out of the ground is hydrogen gas, so we don’t have the huge above-ground purification costs associated with oil refining: we use the ground as our reaction vessel. Just taking Alberta as an example, we have the potential to supply Canada’s entire electricity requirement for 330 years (Canada uses around 2.5% of the world’s electricity—around the same amount as Germany, and more than France or the UK).
Our initial aim is to scale up the production from Canadian oil sands, but in fact, we anticipate that most of the interest in this process will come from outside Canada, as the economics and the environmental implications make people look very hard at whether they want to continue conventional oil production. The only product of this process is hydrogen, meaning that it the technology is effectively pollution and emission free. All the other gases remain in the ground because they cannot go through the hydrogen filter and up to the surface.—Grant Strem
The technology was developed by Ian Gates and Jacky Wang as the result of an agreement between the University of Calgary and Proton Technologies Inc., which now holds the patent.