Dec. 10, 2021

UCalgary researchers see potential in blue hydrogen production

International study shows leak management and new technology hold keys to positive transition
Tank cap with H2 hydrogen logo. Colourbox

An international group of researchers, including two from the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, believe blue hydrogen can play a positive role in the energy transition – under the right circumstances.

Blue hydrogen is produced when natural gas is split into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, either by steam methane reforming (SMR) or auto thermal reforming (ATR). The carbon dioxide can then be captured and geologically stored.

However, some questions were raised about how clean the energy is after the Hydrogen Council estimated that, by 2050, hydrogen will account for 18 per cent of global energy demand and generate US $2.5 trillion per year.

The study, published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Sustainable Energy & Fuels, and co-written by researchers from numerous European and U.S. universities, with UCalgary representing Canada, takes an in-depth look at the climate impact of blue hydrogen.

UCalgary experts weigh in

Dr. Sean McCoy, PhD, and Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, were tapped to bring their respective areas of expertise to the table for the new study.

McCoy, who has spent a lot of time working on hydrogen in recent years, says the work built on state-of-the-art technical and life-cycle assessment models for hydrogen production from natural gas that were developed by co-authors in the United Kingdom and Germany.

“The technologies and technical performance of hydrogen production don’t really change significantly from place to place, so we didn’t need to change the associated inputs,” he says. “However, the inputs relating to the emissions from upstream natural gas production do vary a lot between producers in a region, and from region to region.”

Bergerson, meanwhile, has been working to assess Western Canadian carbon intensity (CI) for several years.

“Overall, this is a good news story for Canada,” she says. “We have some of the lowest CI gas in the world due to the reservoir conditions, regulations and operating practices.”

She adds the variability in those spaces is large and needs to be part of the discussion about making climate-wise decisions.

Addressing global concerns

A joint study published in August by researchers at Cornell and Stanford universities concluded using blue hydrogen for heat generation is not better for the climate, as it can be more than 20 per cent worse than using natural gas directly as an energy carrier.

According to that study, the main reason for this is natural gas leakage into the atmosphere along the supply chain.

Environmental groups and critics like the Pembina Institute have said more focus needs to be on green hydrogen, which is produced from renewable sources and has no emissions but is very costly.

From an environmental standard, producing hydrogen from natural gas could be competitive with that from electrolysis, even using short 20-year timeframes for accounting for global warming impacts. As our work shows, we need carbon capture and storage — as is being proposed in Alberta — and to really focus on upstream methane emissions to make this happen.

- Sean McCoy

McCoy believes this puts Canada, and particularly Alberta, in a good position to be aligned with pledges to reduce methane emissions, like at the recent COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Pushing Alberta forward

Alberta has a vested interest in the industry, with a new blue hydrogen energy complex in Edmonton announced in June with $1.3 billion in funding, while the provincial government unveiled its Hydrogen Roadmap strategy in November.

Bergerson says the study she and McCoy were involved in is the first of its kind to present the major drivers for blue hydrogen to be a high-carbon or low-carbon source of energy here and around the world.

“Previously, advocates on either side would pick best-case or worst-case scenarios,” Bergerson says. “It is important to know that blue hydrogen can be done very well or very poorly.”

She adds the study highlights that leak management and cutting-edge technology will help make blue hydrogen part of the low-carbon energy transition.

McCoy and Bergerson say they will continue their research work at UCalgary and hope to check in again with their co-authors at Heriot-Watt University and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, to keep comparing analysis and findings.