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The quest for cleaner fuel

B.C. cleantech primed to power industry’s decarbonization
Full use of B.C.’s forestry waste for biofuels could reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10% to 15%, says Tony Bi, director of the Biorefining Research and Innovation Centre | Chung Chow

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's BC Tech issue.

Thirty years hence, after demand for Alberta’s oil has entered a predicted decline, the Trans Mountain pipeline, currently under expansion, might be used to move other, lower carbon fuels through Vancouver.

Fuels like ammonia, for example. Three parts hydrogen to one part nitrogen, it is an excellent carrier for hydrogen, which by 2050 could be produced in large quantities in Alberta from natural gas and exported worldwide.

And by 2050, hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains could also be moving through B.C. transporting carbon black — a by-product of hydrogen production from natural gas using methane pyrolysis — to B.C. ports for export to rubber manufacturers around the world.

This is how Matthew Klippenstein, branch manager for Hydrogen BC, imagines the energy transition unfolding in Western Canada. But between now and then, a whole lot of clean technology needs to be deployed, and B.C. is positioned to be a key provider.

There are significant opportunities for B.C.-made clean technologies in the resources, energy and heavy industry sectors, particularly in the areas of hydrogen and carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS).

“We have the opportunity to lead on CCUS and hydrogen in the country,” says Jeanette Jackson, CEO of the Foresight cleantech accelerator.

A number of federal and provincial programs are providing funding for the cleantech sector. One is the federal government’s $1.5 billion clean fuel fund. Another is the new Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE). In addition, Foresight has a new program, called Grow, which helps more advanced cleantech companies with commercialization.

“In 18 months, we’ve supported over 25 B.C. ventures, and as of last month those ventures have secured $428 million in capital, $220 million revenue and created over 475 jobs,” Jackson says.

Expected to be up and running this fall, the new CICE program is being set up with $105 million in funding from Shell Canada, and B.C. and federal governments. It will help B.C. cleantech companies get to commercialization by working with Canadian industries.

The five main areas of focus for the CICE program are:


• hydrogen production, use and distribution;

• biofuel and synthetic fuel production;

• renewable natural gas; and

• battery technology, storage and energy management.

While there are opportunities for B.C. cleantech companies in all of Canada’s resource industries — from mining to forestry — the biggest domestic market is in oil and gas. Since Alberta and Saskatchewan have the biggest challenges when it comes to decarbonisztion, thanks to their oil and gas industries and their use of coal for power production, those two provinces represent the biggest markets for cleantech focused on decarbonization.

“There will be a huge amount of work on carbon capture,” Klippenstein predicts. “B.C. is absolutely a leader in carbon capture technology.”

Hydrogen production and CCUS go hand-in-glove, at least in the Canadian context, since CCUS is a critical part of blue hydrogen production from natural gas. 

Svante, which developed a new kind of filter for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from flue stacks, sees big opportunities in Alberta, where hydrogen production from natural gas is seen as a logical transition industry. Svante recently secured the old Best Buy headquarters in Burnaby, where it will set up a new manufacturing plant for making its carbon capture filters.

“This will be the first plant in the world making filters at that scale,” says Svante CEO Claude Letourneau.

While captured CO2 is currently used mainly in enhanced oil recovery (with most of it being permanently sequestered underground), the scramble is on to find other, value-added uses for captured CO2, rather than just burying it underground.

Carbon Engineering, the B.C. company in the direct air capture space, is working with LanzaTech in the U.S. on a process that combines captured CO2 with water to produce a low-carbon jet fuel. Hydrogen production from natural gas using methane pyrolysis, meanwhile, can produce carbon black as a by-product, which is used as a filler in tires, cables and other rubber products. It’s already being done in the U.S. by Monolith Materials, so it’s a proven technology. In B.C., Ekona Power is also in the methane pyrolysis space.

“The value of the carbon — the carbon black — if you can engineer it for desirable properties, could actually be more valuable than the hydrogen itself, because it’s a value-added product,” Klippenstein says. 

One B.C. cleantech company, Agora Energy Technologies, is developing technology that solves two problems at once: what to do with CO2 once it’s captured, and how to store intermittent wind and solar power. Agora has developed a flow battery that uses captured CO2 as an electrolyte, and produces other products from it, like sodium carbonate, which has a wide range of industrial applications. 

Redox flow batteries use chemical storage for storing large amounts of electricity from intermittent wind and solar power, and can use a range of elements for its electrolytes, including zinc or vanadium. But by using CO2 as a medium, and converting it through a chemical process into a marketable product, while at the same time providing electricity storage for wind or solar power, it could kill two birds with one stone.

“It’s like, you want us to play in the energy storage sphere? That is what we do,” says Agora Energy founder and CEO Christina Gyenge. “You want to produce something out of CO2? Well, that’s what we do too. It’s two independent markets at the same time.”

As for hydrogen, B.C. companies are already leaders in the fuel cell space, although startups like Hydra Energy are now finding other uses in transportation, other than fuel cells. The company provides an injection system that displaces 40% of the diesel fuel used in trucks with hydrogen, reducing emissions by about 40%. It is currently trialing a project with a logging truck in B.C. 

The company sources hydrogen from Chemtrade Logistics chemical plants in Prince George and North Vancouver that make sodium chlorate for bleaching pulp, with hydrogen being a by-product.

Hydra Energy CEO Jessica Verhagen says Class 8 trucks in return-to-base operations, like logging, is the market the company is currently targeting. Using Hydra Energy’s hydrogen-as-a-service model, fleet operators would pay the same price for hydrogen as they would diesel, but would pay lower carbon taxes, since they’d be buying less diesel.

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's BC Tech issue under the headline 'Cleaner fuel.' The full digital edition of the magazine is available here.