ydrogen (H
) has become a
focus of energy transition
conversations for good rea-
son; when used it does not directly
produce carbon dioxide emissions.
This has created a buzz around the
element. As with past energy system
transitions, broad implementation of
methods to capture, transport, and
use hydrogen will require education
and expanded demonstration to ac-
celerate implementation.
Further improvements to tech-
niques and cost structures will need
investment, but the economic prize
for implementing large improve-
ments is enormous. Early imple-
menters of the best improvements
can obtain signicant market share.
The historically higher cost to pro-
duce hydrogen compared to natural
gas, however, has caused reluctance
to adopt this clean energy vector de-
spite millions of deaths globally per
year from air pollution. Though it is
the most abundant element in the
universe, the primary complication
is that hydrogen must be energeti-
cally separated from other com-
pounds like water (H
O) through
concentrated inputs of other re-
sources. Thus, current large-scale
hydrogen production methods are
costly, complex, and often reliant on
carbon intensive processes.
In 2015 while working as a geolo-
gist, alongside Dr. Ian Gates, who
was at the time the Department
Head of the Petroleum and Chemi-
cal Engineering Faculty at the Uni-
versity of Calgary, we realised an
opportunity existed to patent and
commercialise a new hydrogen pro-
duction method. Patents, simula-
tions, lab demonstrations and eld
demonstrations soon followed, and
in 2016 Proton Technologies was
created to proliferate the production
of clean, low-cost hydrogen from
oilelds, leaving not only the origi-
nal carbon behind, but extra carbon.
Coined ‘Clear H
’, Proton’s pro-
cess is signicantly dened in its
ability to be a carbon-negative pro-
cess. Clear hydrogen comes from a
process that can sequester signi-
cant external sources of CO
as car-
bonate rock, from direct air capture
for example. This is important be-
cause without some energy sources
having a carbon intensity below
zero, there is no possible way for
future energy systems to achieve net
zero. The ability to sequester and
negate emissions can create a price
premium for clear hydrogen derived
products like electricity, steel, am-
monia, synthetic fuels, and glass.
Proton’s process leverages previ-
ously expensed infrastructure. Most
big old oilelds are near existing
roads, power lines, pipelines, and
even towns full of skilled trades
who can directly transition to clear
hydrogen production. Rather than
spending a fortune to abandon tril-
lions of dollars in infrastructure
built up over the last century, exist-
ing energy infrastructure can be re-
purposed for clean, low cost energy,
thereby removing any requirement
for new ecological disturbances or
fresh water.
When oilelds are abandoned,
they still are generally more than
half-full, but the remaining oil is not
extracted due to commercial or
technical constraints. The remaining
hydrocarbons are Proton’s fuel sup-
ply, and the pore space within the
oileld is the reaction vessel be-
low the geological seal which is the
reason the oil deposit accumulated
there in the rst place. Proton’s pro-
cess includes injecting oxygen, and
optionally CO
, into a well-bore
which triggers hydrogen-liberating
reactions. The resulting hydrogen is
separated and kept, and the carbon
is locked as solid carbonate within
the pore space of the oil eld.
The reactions within the reservoir
might be rst conceptualised as a
spherical zone where at the centre
partial oxidation reactions occur; and
in various temperature and composi-
tion rinds beyond there are many
other reactions: water gas shift, gas-
ication, aquathermalysis, pyrolysis,
reverse methanation, carbonate cre-
ation, and myriad others. The injec-
tion process is cyclic, and convec-
tion, buoyancy and concentration
gradient all play roles in the hot,
complex chemical dance. In short
and on a net basis, CO
and O
into the system, and H
comes out.
The process has been tested at
Proton’s own oil eld in Saskatche-
wan, Canada. The facility was con-
structed in 2011 at a cost exceeding
CAD$250 million ($195 million),
and by 2017 it was shut in and Pro-
ton was the fth owner. It was con-
nected to the electricity grid and
Proton plans to divert some of its
hydrogen to supply electricity to the
power grid through its 20-year con-
tract with the local utility. Baseload
electricity can be very low cost and
clean since hydrogen can be made
at lower cost than natural gas per
unit of energy.
First a turbine uses a small portion
of the produced hydrogen to power
a cryogenic air separation unit.
When air is cooled below -180°C,
the oxygen becomes a liquid. This
high purity liquid oxygen can be
separated, and warmed; which in-
creases its pressure. This highly
pressured oxygen can use the ventu-
ri effect to pull in additional CO
upstream of the injection wells. The
combined gases must only exceed
the reservoir pressure to be injected.
Some of the injected CO
can be
self-sourced and frozen directly out
of the produced gas stream, and
some of it can be externally sourced
in order to get below zero on carbon
intensity of the produced hydrogen.
The air separation unit also provides
nitrogen, which can be used to
make NH
(ammonia). Having all
the cold uids around opens further
doors; like data centre cooling, or
passively pre-chilling hydrogen
down toward -180°C so that further
temperature reduction to make sub-
cooled liquid hydrogen is only a
modest energy step.
These factors all enable cost struc-
tures that are attractive. Generally,
clean hydrogen is assumed to cost
more than $1/kg in long-range fore-
casts that include signicant econo-
my of scale and improvements. Pro-
ton believes that for large projects,
it can get into a levelised cost range
below $0.50/kg right away, and
with signicant likely further cost
savings. This makes hydrogen
roughly competitive with the cost of
natural gas per unit of energy; and
in districts where carbon taxes exist,
the advantages of hydrogen fuel are
even more pronounced.
Proton believes that roughly 10
per cent of western Canada’s hydro-
carbon resources can supply 10 per
cent of the world’s energy supply
for 50 years. A region with low cost
clean electricity and fuel at large
scale can provide signicant bene-
ts to other energy intensive busi-
nesses, enabling a new, clean, com-
petitive industrial ecosystem.
Proton Technologies is ‘clearly’ a
thought leader in the transition to
clean energy. While the company
currently has one operational facili-
ty in Western Canada, it has begun a
licensing programme that now in-
cludes clients across Europe, Pacic
Asia, and the Middle East. Licens-
ees can use their own sites to pro-
duce H
using Proton’s process.
Clear hydrogen, or carbon-nega-
tive hydrogen, will become a criti-
cal component of the global move-
ment to decarbonise the energy
industry by turning oil and gas re-
sources and infrastructure into
sources of clean, low-cost energy.
Whether it is used in turbines that
provide baseload power to the elec-
tric grid for electric vehicles and ap-
pliances, or whether the hydrogen is
directly used by fuel cells or heavy
industry, clear hydrogen is expected
to proliferate globally, rapidly.
Transitioning to “clean” energy
sources will forever create a certain
level of bipartisan jargon, with stake-
holders on either side struggling for
authority. Clear hydrogen is not only
an opportunity to produce low-cost,
clean energy, it is also an opportunity
for compromise and cooperation on
the idea that our world can improve,
and we should embrace that im-
provement, together.
Grant Strem is Chairman & CEO of
Proton Technologies.
Technology Focus
A process has been
developed and
eld-tested, which
enables hydrogen
to be produced
from abandoned oil
wells at a cost that
makes it immediately
competitive with
natural gas per unit
of energy. Proton
Grant Strem,
The ‘clear path to low cost
The ‘clear path to low cost
zero emissions hydrogen
zero emissions hydrogen
Proton’s rst asset is a test eld in Kerrobert, Saskatchewan, Canada. Proton plans to divert
some of its hydrogen to supply electricity to the power grid
Proton’s unique hydrogen
production approach