FuelCellsWorks’ Get To Know A Sector series continues with a profile of Canadian clean hydrogen startup Proton Technologies.
Combining mature technologies from the oil & gas sector, the company projects it can produce zero-emission hydrogen for $0.10 to $0.50/kg. Even at the upper level, that’s a game-changer.
CEO Grant Stream reports “meaningful interest” from oil majors, and Proton has a non-binding letter of interest with Cenovus, a large Canadian oil producer which recently vowed to be net-zero by 2050.
As shown in the annotated corporate slide below, Proton’s hydrogen costs are equivalent to producing zero-emission hydrogen for the equivalent of 0.3 to 1.5 cents/kWh ($0.003 to $0.015/kWh) of chemical energy.
(The figures are actually more advantageous for Proton; the company’s $0.10 to $0.50/kg cost estimate is for Canadian dollars and corresponds to roughly USD $0.08 to $0.38/kg.)
There’s been a lot of excitement in recent months about green hydrogen (from electrolysis) eventually becoming cheaper than blue hydrogen (stream methane reforming, or SMR, with carbon capture & storage) and grey hydrogen (SMR without CO2 emissions abatement).
A recent Bloomberg article reflects the optimism that renewables will become cheap enough in the 2040 to 2050 timeframe that they will be able to produce hydrogen more cheaply than even SMR.
Proton Energy believes its technology — currently deployed in a small-scale, real-world pilot project — can dramatically undercut grey hydrogen once deployed at a larger scale (perhaps as early as 2022). An annotated image from the Bloomberg article is attached below:
Proton’s estimated zero-emission hydrogen costs of $0.10 to $0.50/kg could bring that future forward dramatically. Assuming an 80/20 split of operating and capital costs, it would be the equivalent of renewable electricity at 0.24 to 1.2 cents/kWh.
So what’s their technology?
THAI’s Time To Shine
Proton Technologies’ zero-emission hydrogen extraction technology has two parts, both of them technologically mature.
The first part — generating hydrogen — consists of injecting oxygen into oil fields. While this may sound novel, the oil and gas sector has been pumping fluids (from CO2 to air to water) into oil wells for decades, to extract ever-more oil from them. Even with these “enhanced oil recovery” methods, the majority of the oil generally remains underground.
The oxygen reacts with hydrocarbons underground, generating CO2 and hydrogen. Being light and buoyant, the hydrogen will rise to the top of the deposit, where it can be extracted. To oversimplify a bit, it’s steam reforming … conducted underground.
The technology was ill-fated though, and Petrobank abandoned it. As noted in a 2013 Globe and Mail article, the company detected a combustible gas collecting at the top of one of its test wells.
That “combustible gas”? Almost certainly hydrogen.
In 2013 Petrobank perceived the hydrogen build-up as a problem. A few years later, the founders of Proton Technologies identified it as a solution. (Proton now owns one of Petrobank’s former test wells.)
We’ll turn to the second part of Proton’s technology solution next week, and give context for other important considerations.
Matthew Klippenstein (@ElectronComm) for FuelCellsWorks.com.
Matthew Klippenstein is a professional engineer who has tracked the Canadian electric mobility transition for the past seven years. A veteran of Canada’s fuel cell, renewable energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure sectors, he regularly provides sector commentary for television and radio. He does not have business relationships with or hold direct investments in, any companies mentioned in his articles.